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H&M Has Been Caught Greenwashing, Again. Now What?

Another day, another headline about a fashion company greenwashing to sell more products appealing to conscious customers. This week’s news is about H&M being sued for “misleading” sustainable marketing. In the era of climate change, fashion remains one of the least regulated industries. What’s taking it so long? And who’s paying the price?

THE BACKSTORY

It’s no secret that greenwashing has been on the rise. As customer interest in fashion’s environmental impact has grown, so have vague climate pledges and unsupported “green” marketing—greenwashing.

It comes as no surprise that H&M was sued for the same very recently: in 2019, the fast-fashion brand got heat from Norway because to them, H&M’s Conscious collection appeared to be more sustainable than it actually was (they were not wrong: from the usage of the unsustainable leather alternative, Piñatex, to products containing fossil-fuel based plastics, with very little transparency, H&M’s case did not look good). And over recent years, H&M has been shown to exploit workers in harmful working conditions. Labour injustice is not sustainable in any book.

Last month, a lawsuit was filed against H&M in New York federal court, accusing it of greenwashing and capitalising on its growing conscious consumer base. The lawsuit was brought forward by Chelsea Commodore, a marketing student who alleged she had overpaid for a fashion piece marketed as “conscious.”

She also claims that H&M’s sustainability marketing misrepresents the company’s ability to close the loop by recycling textiles. Because one, those recycling solutions at that scale do not exist. And two, Commodore argues, even if they did, “it would take H&M more than a decade to recycle what it sells in a matter of days.”

NOW WHAT?

There’s an article in The Guardian about how the term ‘greenwashing’ came about. Coined in the 1980s, the term was first used by environmentalist Jay Westerveld to describe corporate environmental claims that were deemed false.

“Greenwashing lulls us into a fall sense of security – a smokescreen that conceals continued exploitation of the planet and allows those responsible to get away with it,” shares Changing Markets Foundation’s (CMF) Campaigns Adviser, George Harding-Rolls.

Changing Markets Foundation works in partnership with NGOs, other foundations and research organisations, to create and support campaigns that shift market share away from unsustainable products and companies and towards environmentally and socially beneficial solutions. Greenwash.com is one such project.

By exposing and compiling instances of greenwashing in fashion, they “hope to demonstrate the need for strong legislation in the fashion industry to level the playing field. The industry remains one of the most lightly regulated globally, and most efforts towards sustainability are voluntary and therefore optional,” describes George Harding-Rolls.

THE TRANSPARENCY DEBATE

H&M is not alone in this. While the company has been one of the more higher ranked on transparency indices, giving an illusion of truly green efforts, we need to dig a bit deeper. Which index are they using? And how reliable is it?

“H&M conveniently, and egregiously, ‘ignored negative signs in Higg Index scores,’ and simply presented them as ‘positive’ results in every instance…. This was a uniform practice for each and every Sustainability Profile scorecard,” claims Chelsea Commodore.

A Quartz investigation in June revealed that it’s scorecards for products were misleading. More than half of H&M’s sustainability profiles portrayed products as being better for the environment than they actually were and, in some cases, were allegedly completely untrue. Those scorecards were based on Higg MSI (Materials Sustainability Index) data. This has become a global controvery and in the UK, Competition and Markets Authority is currently investivating ASOS and Boohoo as well.

Following the Quartz investigation, H&M removed its Higg sustainability profiles. Shortly after, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which owns and oversees the methodology and suite of tools the MSI is a part of, said it would be suspending the use of its consumer-facing sustainability profiles and product seals. They did this because they were afraid that H&M and other brands would be breaking the law for using the MSI’s methodology to market their products as more environmentally sustainable.

Without standardised legislation in fashion, many brands use unchecked third-party certifications to measure and display their sustainability efforts. But what happens when the industry tools themselves have very little accuracy and relevance? Consumers and the planet pay the price.

MOVING ON: LEGISLATION IN FASHION 

In the same interview for Greenwash.com, George Harding-Rolls touches on some very critical points about the costs of greenwashing, which are almost always far greater than we’d expect. Not only does Greenwashing undermine the systemic change that is needed to address intersecting crises of climate and labour, it also pushes the bar lower for how brands communicate sustainability.

Want to pull in those conscious customers? Add completely unbacked claims like “Kinder To The Environment” to your site. Or just add a splash of green (this is the more subtle version of greenwashing that still affects customers). Or feature young climate activists in your adverts (we see you, H&M).

What is the answer to countering greenwashing in all its forms and degrees? Legislation and regulation.

Undeniably, transitioning to a regulated industry will be difficult for brands as well as policy-makers, especially for an industry that has purposefully avoided regulation for hundreds of years. We don’t want general information that does not specify the actual environmental benefit of each garment; consumers should know whether a “recycled” garment is based on 5% recycled materials or 70%. How harmful/sustainable is it? Without a positive and healthy relationship between brands and regulation, it is really difficult to hold brands accountable and for them to reveal their greenwashing efforts without any perceived risk, which is where some lack of transparency may come from. There will certainly be some initial friction.

On the other hand, without legislation, we will continue to have companies that mislead products as environmentally friendly and further mislead policy-makers into believing that no legislation is really needed because fashion companies are proactively doing everything they can. This is blinding and slackening.

Which world do we want to live in? 

FEATURED IMAGE: via Pexels | IMAGE DESCRIPTION:  Various colorful threads hanging on rail in a workshop
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