What is the carbon footprint of that sweatshirt? How much toxic runoff resulted from that pair of jeans? Those are the kinds of questions that a new index aims to answer. The Higg Index, created by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, promises companies a consistent way to evaluate the sustainability of their clothing design and supply chains. The index was developed by members of the coalition, which includes big brands like Gap, Nike and Levi Strauss, as well as suppliers and environmental nonprofits. It’s based largely on existing measures like the Outdoor Industry Association’s Eco Index and Nike’s Environmental Apparel Design Tool.

The index looks at the entire life cycle of clothing, using a wide range of inputs including water use and quality, energy and greenhouse gas, waste, chemicals and toxicity. In a press release from the coalition, Target said it’s already using the index to look at its supply chain and improve its environmental record.

The initial version of the index only deals with apparel, but the coalition says it plans to broaden its scope to include shoes. It also plans to add in new factors, including the labor and social impact of production methods.

For now, the index is only available for internal use by companies. The coalition says it plans to eventually create a consumer-facing label based on the index, but it calls that a “long-term aspiration” and says no timetable has been set for its development.

This means that, for the moment, consumers will need to have faith that companies are using the index to improve their environmental performance. Michelle Harvey of Environmental Defense, which is a member of the coalition board, told Environmental journalist Marc Gunther that she’s hopeful about the concept.

“I’m pretty confident that it’s going to move the needle,” she said. “It’s way too soon to say it’s going to change the face of the industry.”

Main photo credit: tasselflower/Flickr