Angelika Hellweger from Rahman Ravelli describes fashion’s failure to prove its environmental compatibility.
It is estimated that the fashion industry generates 92 million tons of waste worldwide every year. Industry also uses over 20 trillion gallons of water annually and contributes to nearly 10% of global emissions. Despite these alarming numbers – and the criticism they’ve sparked – the fashion world seems to have done little to either accurately measure or meaningfully reduce its carbon footprint, despite conveying the opposite impression in its marketing campaigns.
Retailers and brands have been accused of claiming to use “certified organic” cotton when such claims are fake and not backed by credible data, and of taking back old clothes for recycling just to entice customers to buy more. There are also accusations that they charge customers more for the same quality clothes by labeling them as “sustainable”.
In the UK, mass-market retailers Boohoo, George at Asda and Asos are under investigation by the Competition Markets Authority for greenwashing. Earlier this year, the Norwegian Consumer Authority ruled that H&M and outerwear brand Nørrona can no longer use consumer-focused environmental product labels. Most recently, H&M and Decathlon have promised the Dutch Consumer Markets Authority (ACM) that they will “adjust or stop using sustainability claims on their clothing and/or websites” and ensure that consumers are better informed. This followed an investigation into potentially misleading marketing claims, which found that certain terms such as ‘ecodesign’ and ‘conscious’ were not clear or adequately justified. In addition, each company has agreed to make additional charitable donations to projects working to improve the environmental sustainability of fashion: H&M pledged €500,000 and Decathlon £400,000. The ACM will work with the companies over the next two years to ensure the labels are changed and the donations made. Given these commitments by the two companies, ACM will not impose sanctions.
Meanwhile, in the US, H&M is the subject of a class-action lawsuit filed in upstate New York that has similarly criticized its sustainability claims. The plaintiff bought several items that H&M sold under the “conscious choice” label. According to the retailer’s marketing materials, these products are made from “at least 50% or more sustainable materials.” But they are not. H&M has misrepresented the nature of its products at the expense of consumers who pay a premium believing they are buying truly sustainable and eco-friendly clothing. According to the lawsuit, H&M has created the misleading illusion that “old clothes will simply be turned into new clothes, or that clothes won’t end up in a landfill” and “recycling solutions either don’t exist or aren’t widely available in stores for the majority” of H&M’s products . The plaintiff argues: “It would take more than a decade for H&M to recycle what it sells in a matter of days. This class action lawsuit against H&M alleges financial harm suffered by consumers when they paid more for clothing items because they felt they were paying for a more conscious and sustainably made product.
It must be noted that if the applicable law enforcement authorities determine that a retailer has engaged in greenwashing, an individual investor can and will use those determinations as the basis for its own individual consumer/investor and/or class action. It is expected that the fashion industry will soon face a massive spate of civil lawsuits – alongside aggressive enforcement action by regulators – and then realize the serious impact of greenwashing on its business. Retailers are therefore well advised to reconsider their sustainability strategy and marketing communications with a view to possible future regulatory requirements. Otherwise, many would look less conspicuous than intended.