Fashion and greenwashing: not a pretty sight

Rahman Ravelli’s Angelika Hellweger details fashion’s failure to prove its environmental credentials.

It is estimated that the fashion industry generates 92 million tons of waste worldwide each year. Industry also uses more than 20 trillion gallons of water per year and contributes nearly 10% of global emissions. Despite these alarming figures – and the criticism they have drawn – the fashion world appears to have done little to accurately measure or significantly reduce its carbon footprint, despite giving the impression to the contrary in its marketing campaigns.

Retailers and brands have been accused of claiming to use ‘certified organic’ cotton, despite these claims being false and unsupported by credible data, and of taking back old clothes for recycling just to entice customers to buy more. . There is also the allegation that they charge customers more for the same clothes of the same quality by labeling them as “sustainable”.

In the UK, mass market retailers Boohoo, George at Asda and Asos are under investigation for greenwashing by the Competition Markets Authority. Earlier this year, the Norwegian Consumer Authority ruled that H&M and outdoor clothing brand Nørrona can no longer use consumer environmental labels. It was only recently that H&M and Decathlon promised the Dutch Authority for Consumer Markets (ACM) that they would “adjust or no longer use sustainability claims on their clothing and/or websites”. , and ensure that consumers are better informed. This follows an investigation into potentially misleading marketing claims which found that terms like ‘Ecodesign’ and ‘Conscious’ were not clear or sufficiently substantiated. In addition, each company has agreed to make additional charitable donations to projects aimed at improving the environmental sustainability of fashion: H&M has pledged €500,000 and Decathlon, £400,000. ACM will work with businesses over the next two years to ensure labels are changed and donations are made. In view of these commitments by the two companies, the ACM will not impose any sanctions.

Meanwhile, in the United States, H&M is the subject of a class action lawsuit in New York state, which has similar criticism over its sustainability claims. The plaintiff purchased several H&M items sold under the “conscious choice” label. According to the retailer’s marketing materials, these products are made with “at least 50% or more sustainable materials.” But they are not. H&M has distorted the nature of its products to the detriment of consumers who pay a higher price thinking they are buying truly sustainable and eco-friendly clothing. According to the lawsuit, H&M created a deceptive illusion “that old clothes are simply turned into new clothes, or that the clothes will not end up in a landfill” and “recycling solutions do not exist or are not available in the large-scale trade in the vast majority” of H&M products. The plaintiff alleges that “it would take more than a decade for H&M to recycle what it sells in a few days”. This class action lawsuit against H&M concerns the financial damages that consumers suffered when they paid more for clothes more under the impression that they were paying for a more consciously and sustainably produced product.

It should be noted that if the relevant authorities find that a retailer has engaged in greenwashing, an individual investor can and will use these findings as the basis for their own individual consumer/investor and/or class action claim. It must be assumed that the fashion industry will soon – in addition to aggressive enforcement actions by regulators – be faced with a massive flood of civil lawsuits and will then recognize the severe effect that greenwashing could have on his business. Retailers are therefore well advised to reconsider their sustainability strategy and marketing communications with possible future regulatory compliance in mind. Failure to do so would leave them far less eye-catching than they intended.

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