Consumers are being duped into paying a premium for fashion products that make big claims about their environmental credentials but have no evidence to back them up, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has said as it prepares to name and shame streetwear companies.
Entire lines of clothing are labeled “sustainable” and “eco-friendly”, without the company having proof that the entire process – from manufacturing to delivery, packaging and sale – is good for the environment , according to the CMA.
The CMA is investigating allegations from the UK fashion industry and will soon have a list of the worst offenders. It is looking sector by sector, with the packaged food industry and supermarkets likely to be next.
It is estimated that UK consumers spend £54 billion a year on clothes and shoes, and this should continue to grow in the years to come. According to some estimates, fashion is responsible for 2-8% of global carbon emissions, as well as waste and pollution. Around 300,000 tonnes of used clothing are burned or buried in a landfill every year in the UK.
But shoppers trying to do the right thing by buying sustainable products are being fooled by sweeping claims, the watchdog says, leading to a loss of trust that could prevent the UK from meeting its climate commitments .
Cecilia Parker Aranha, CMA’s director of consumer protection, said: ‘According to our research, something like 60% of people said they were likely or somewhat likely to be willing to pay more for products , and I think it was up to about 9% more [money] for environmentally friendly products. I have the impression that people are ready to pay more.
This means that companies have been quick to put green claims on their products, sometimes without making much effort to make items more sustainable.
“We felt that growing consumer demand for green products and their willingness to pay for those green products increased the incentive for companies to be seen as green, whether they were actually green or not,” Parker explained. Aranha.
Claims being investigated by the CMA include unfair comparisons that individual garments are “better for the environment” without specifying how; claims regarding the use of recycled materials in new clothing; and entire lines of clothing in stores bearing the “sustainable” brand.
Parker Aranha said: “I was really skeptical of anyone claiming that a product is ‘ecological’ or ‘sustainable’ because the company really should show that every element of the product, from production to disposal, will be good for the environment, not harmful to the environment. The other thing I would watch out for is if they say they are “made with recycled fiber”. ‘with 16% to 20% recycled fibres.
“For these very generic general claims, most companies will not be able to prove that the product is good for the environment at every stage of the process. If you use the word “sustainable”, I think that really means that you have to be sustainable throughout the life cycle.
The CMA will name the companies it considers to be the worst offenders, as an example for the rest of the industry, and ask them to make changes. If they don’t change their ad, they could be sued.
Investigators pointed out that his crackdown on ticket sales led to legal action against the Viagogo website, which then changed the way it works. He said fashion companies greenwashing could face similar consequences.
“If companies don’t voluntarily undertake these changes, we have the ability to sue them to force them to do so,” Parker Aranha said.
This area is still relatively understudied, with companies free to call themselves “eco” and subject to little scrutiny.
Parker Aranha added: “I think greenwashing and misleading environmental claims is not an area that many regulators in the UK have looked into so far.”
This could lead to a loss of confidence in sustainable products as customers give up on making environmentally friendly choices. It could also put companies that are making efforts to be green at a competitive disadvantage.
“It’s a problem because a lot of these claims are false, consumers are buying the wrong products, and companies [that] do the right thing are losers,” said Parker Aranha.
“It could also really undermine trust. And ultimately, if you undermine trust, consumers don’t believe what they see on packaging when it comes to green claims. And it’s going to impact the UK’s ability to do what it needs to do to tackle climate change and the other sustainability challenges we face.
Greenwashing phrases to watch out for
Some ranges are named “eco” or have “eco” in the name, but it would be very difficult to prove whether the whole supply chain and manufacturing process was environmentally friendly.
Sustainable – labeling of a whole range
Certain components of a product can legitimately be called “sustainable” – but check to see if there is a qualification. For example, it may be made using a non-toxic process, but if a range or an entire garment is labeled “sustainable”, that raises a red flag as it is a radical statement.
Made with organic or recycled cotton
Many clothing lines say they are made with recycled or organic materials when these fibers make up only a small percentage of the fabric.
If something is labeled “greener” or “more environmentally friendly” but doesn’t state what that comparison stands for, it could be a greenwashing claim.