How brands should navigate the fashion greenwashing crackdown

How brands should navigate the fashion greenwashing crackdown

Major brands have stepped up sustainable marketing in an effort to capitalize on demand for ethical and climate-friendly fashion. Now, regulators and consumers are putting those claims to the test.

The UK competition watchdog last week launched an investigation into sustainability claims made by fast fashion brands Boohoo, Asos and George, the clothing brand of UK supermarket chain Asda, making fashion its top priority in efforts to address greenwashing issues. In June, the Norwegian Consumer Authority asked outerwear brand Norrøna and Swedish fast fashion giant H&M to stop using data from the widely used sustainability benchmarking tool. , the Higg Index, in consumer labels, concluding that it could mislead consumers. The European Union is preparing a series of laws aimed at limiting the impact of fashion and guaranteeing the credibility of any sustainable marketing. And in the United States, where regulators have been slower to act, a class action lawsuit was filed accusing H&M of “misleading” sustainability marketing in New York last month.

These measures represent a sweeping crackdown on greenwashing that is rapidly gaining momentum, leading to growing risks of reputational damage, litigation, censorship and regulatory fines. Brands should pay close attention as these cases have the potential to redefine how the industry can market its sustainability efforts.

“There’s no more smoke and mirrors in there,” said Kenneth Loo, co-founder and chief executive of communications firm Chapter 2 Agency. “You have to be transparent and if you’re not, countries will impose that transparency.”

BoF explains how brands should prepare.

Watch your words

Regulators are particularly alert to vague language that could mislead consumers. For example, generic terms like “green”, “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” commonly used in fashion marketing give the impression that products have positive environmental attributes. “Unless a company can prove this, they risk failing to meet their legal obligations,” the UK Competition and Markets Authority has said in a new set of green marketing guidelines that have been published. last year and form the basis of its ongoing speed surveys. fashion brands.

“Brands need to be very clear about what they mean by sustainability,” said Whitney McGuire, co-founder of intersectional sustainability initiative Sustainable Brooklyn and fashion advocate. “Their language needs to be so much more specific.”

The CMA’s investigation of Boohoo, Asos and Asda focuses in part on the vague language the brands use to label their eco-friendly ranges, named “Ready for the Future”, “The Responsible Edit” and “The Responsible Edit” respectively. George for Good”. The CMA is examining whether such terms give consumers a false impression of the products’ true impact on the environment. Among other things, the lawsuit against H&M alleges that the company overstated its sustainability credentials by using terms such as “conscious choice”, “sustainable materials” and “closing the loop” to describe products and collections. .

Boohoo, Asos and Asda said they were cooperating with the CMA in its investigation. H&M said it takes the allegations seriously and is investigating them thoroughly.

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To meet increasingly stringent regulatory standards, brands must go beyond buzzwords and do more to back up their sustainability claims with solid, transparent information.

This will likely mean more legwork, as certification systems and datasets commonly used in the industry, like the Higg Index, are themselves subject to scrutiny.

“There has to be up-to-date credible evidence to show what you’re talking about,” said Samata Pattinson, managing director of sustainable fashion consultancy RCGD Global. “A lot of people take inspiration from existing facts, which are almost discredited as we learn more, so there has to be a willingness from companies, organizations and partners to invest in research and be able to really support their claims,” she added.

This doesn’t mean that every element of sustainable marketing has to be an essay, but important caveats or context should be made accessible. The AMC’s Green Claims Code, for example, indicates that in some cases trademarks may include a link or QR code providing additional information. Just make sure the finer details don’t contradict the catchy tagline.

Ciara Cullen, partner at UK-based law firm RPC, recommends that clients keep a record of all data used to support any claims, ideally accompanied by independent third-party verification and assessment of confidential risks before their publication.

When brands communicate about their sustainability efforts, all data must be properly and carefully contextualized. For example, claiming that a certain type of packaging contains 50% less plastic, or producing a certain pair of jeans saved 20 liters of water, means little to the consumer without a benchmark or point of comparison.

The risk of disconnection can be compounded by the fact that different areas of a fashion business often have different, sometimes conflicting goals: a sustainability manager is responsible for reducing a brand’s negative impact on the environment; a marketing or sales team, on the other hand, is rewarded for driving growth and moving more products.

Cecilia Parker Aranha, CMA’s director of consumer protection, recommends companies train their staff to make sure “people are speaking the same language, so you don’t end up in a situation where someone who works on your sustainability team says, “We’re testing this fabric again, which has a lower carbon footprint or lower water footprint,” and the marketing team is quick to say, “It’s good for the ‘environment “.

Think like a consumer

It is no doubt every fashion company’s dream to get inside the mind of their target customer and understand what motivates them, in order to successfully sell more products. But brands can also benefit from another type of market research that asks the question: what do consumers know about sustainable fashion?

Current investigations into greenwashing largely boil down to the issue of consumer perception, with regulators examining whether brands’ green claims could mislead shoppers and cause them to make ill-informed decisions. Brands with a clear reading of how consumers react to their marketing may have a stronger defense. Boohoo said it has surveyed more than 1,400 customers about their thoughts on sustainable fashion to ensure the information in its marketing is clear and simple.

It will likely become more important for brands to play a bigger role in educating consumers about the impact of fashion. It also means providing more transparency about the challenges and limitations of any sustainability effort.

“We’re steeped in this language of fashion sustainability, and sometimes we think the consumer is too,” said Carrie Ellen Phillips of communications agency BPCM. “They are not.”

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