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Evaluating alternative environmental decision support matrices for future Higg MSI scenarios

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Abstract

Purpose

The Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) consists of five life cycle indicators to help the apparel industry inform material selection at the design stage. Until 2020, the Higg MSI applied a single score and after much debate, in 2021, indicators will no longer be aggregated. The problem of tradeoffs remains, and so this study evaluates potential aggregation approaches to help decision makers deal with tradeoffs that solve previous issues and allow for an integrated view.

Methods

Aggregation can be compensatory such as in the case of the weighted sum in the previous Higg MSI, or partially compensatory, and this relates as to how tradeoffs are managed. This study compares aggregation in the Higg MSI to four other aggregation methods via a comparative application using six textile materials (cotton, wool, PET, nylon 6, lyocell, and viscose) that, while not functionally equivalent on a mass basis, serve as an illustration of the effects of aggregation. This paper compares three compensatory aggregation methods to results from the Higg MSI—internal normalization of division by maximum, global normalization, monetization—and one partially compensatory method—stochastic multi-attribute analysis (SMAA). Methods were chosen to ensure a broad coverage according to their applicability to the Higg MSI.

Results and discussion

The comparison of raw materials using the impact categories used in the MSI Higg show tradeoffs, particularly for two materials which are the best performing materials in two impact categories and worse performing materials in the other two impact categories (out of four categories). For materials presenting tradeoffs, results show a distinct pattern between compensatory methods and SMAA. Compensatory single score methods place these materials in the lowest ranks, even lower than a material which is not the best performing material in any category. In SMAA, these same two materials rank above the mediocre material. There is a difference in how compensatory methods and partially compensatory methods handle the tradeoffs, between impacts and the resulting ranking of the materials.

Conclusions

Analysis shows that the current approach to aggregation in the Higg MSI is based on a weighted sum and, as with the other fully compensatory approaches, has three fundamental problems: linear compensation between poor and good performances, lack of accounting of mutual differences, and inverse proportionality. These problems can lead to material decisions that may enable burden shifting and unintended environmental consequences as a result of using the Higg MSI.

Recommendations

The Higg MSI needs to support companies in understanding the environmental sustainability of their products to be able to identify improvement options in a way that can adapt to the industry’s environmental concerns and business strategy. Therefore, it is recommended that the Higg MSI apply aggregation that is methodologically defensible regardless of the material in question to incentivize a healthy competition for environmental stewardship among industry members.

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Correspondence to Valentina Prado.

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Communicated by Adriana Del Borghi.

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Prado, V., Daystar, J., Wallace, M. et al. Evaluating alternative environmental decision support matrices for future Higg MSI scenarios. Int J Life Cycle Assess 26, 1357–1373 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-021-01928-8

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-021-01928-8

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