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Regulation, data, harmonisation: How fashion is cracking down on greenwashing

By Huw Hughes


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Image: Unsplash

As mounting consumer interest for more environmentally friendly fashion options has accelerated in recent years, so too has an increase in greenwashing - where companies exaggerate their environmental credentials by offering vague or misleading information about the products they sell.

But just what can be done to combat such a widespread and complex phenomenon? Regulation, harmonisation, and the tricky issue of communicating complex sustainability claims to consumers were among the subjects discussed at the OECD Forum on Due Diligence in the Garment and Footwear Sector, which took place in Paris from February 16 to 17.

“We have to think about [sustainability] claims in a very broad sense,” said Kristin Komives, the director of programmes at ISEAL, a UK-based non-profit focused on ensuring the credibility of market-based action for sustainability.

“Claims can be words, they can be images, they can be broadcasted,” she said, adding they can be made about products themselves, but also about investments made in supply chains or sustainability commitments. In short, sustainability claims are all around us, and therefore, so is greenwashing.

Regulators cracking down on greenwashing

To combat the ambiguity of what companies mean when they call a product “sustainable” - or any other variation of the word, such as “eco-friendly”, “green” or “environmentally friendly” - various international consumer authorities have started cracking down on unsubstantiated claims.

Tonje Drevland, the head of the Norwegian Consumer Authority’s (NCA) supervisory department, summed it up simply: “Everyone knows the principle: you shouldn't lie. And in marketing law, that's what applies,” she said, referring to the International Chamber of Commerce’s (ICC) Marketing Code.

Last year, the NCA issued a warning to Norwegian clothing company Norrøna as well as Swedish giant H&M about “misleading environmental claims”. Similarly, the UK’s competition watchdog, the CMA, is currently investigating fashion retailers Boohoo, Asos, and Asda about similar “green” claims, and has also advised the government to make changes to consumer protection legislation, which includes a common set of sustainable definitions.

Jeremy Lardeau, from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), emphasised the importance of stricter legislation, saying we can’t “rely on the goodwill of a few corporations to change their business models entirely”, because “you will see new corporate actors in other countries invade the space at the lightning speed of ultra fast fashion”.

“I do believe that we need to address it at a higher level than corporate accountability, because that's just not going to cut it,” he said. “I think this needs to be addressed at a political level.”

Consumers need more specific claims

Panellists also pointed to the fact that consumers need to be provided with claims they can easily understand. Drevland said: “If you say ‘more sustainable denim’, what does that mean? Can I, as a consumer, make an informed decision based on that claim? I would strongly say no. Does it relate to labour rights? Does it relate to environmental sites of the denim production? It's not possible to say from the claim.”

And there will be mounting pressure for brands to back up sustainable claims with documentation or they could face serious problems, possibly including court proceedings, especially if they are found not only to be vague claims, but false ones. Drevland warned that the entire sector “must be prepared” for such a crackdown, noting that the EU and other countries are ramping up stricter laws to help consumer authorities fight greenwashing.

Material isn’t everything when it comes to sustainability

But in the meantime, as new legislation is being created, what can be done to fight greenwashing? Drevland noted that one of the biggest greenwashing issues in the garment and footwear sector today is brands focussing only on what material a product is made of when describing their sustainability efforts. She noted that “it's hard to know what the choice of materials means in the total life cycle of a product”, adding that “no one knows that”, not even experts in the field, so how could a consumer?

One organisation trying to offer a more complete answer to whether a product or organisation is sustainable or not is the SAC, which in 2011 launched the Higg Index, a set of tools for measuring not only the sustainability of materials, but also the social and environmental impacts of products across topics such as water use, carbon emissions, and labour conditions.

Lardeau, who is the vice president of the Higg Index, said that before it was launched “companies were operating in silos, creating their own sustainability measurement and assessment frameworks, creating redundancy and audit fatigue across the supply chain”. The index offered a “new and revolutionary” way for companies to “collaborate on the rules and then compete on those rules”, he said.

But that’s no easy task, as the SAC found out last year when its product-focused tool, the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (Higg MSI), was banned by Norway's NCA as its data was declared not a sufficient basis for environmental marketing claims. SAC has since released updates to its Higg Index, and Lardeau noted that the consumer authority investigation had been “a huge learning experience” and has “uncovered some really good questions that we haven't really answered as an industry and as a society around what is the role of complex data in consumer marketing and how can we present it right in an appropriate way”.

He continued: “We believe that common measurement systems have a role to play because facts and data need to be comparable,” but work needs to be done to “drive harmonisation of guidance, interpretations, and regulations so that we have a level playing field”.

Brands greenwashing: Short-term benefits, long-term damage

Several panellists also noted that greenwashing in the long-term will do more damage to brands than good. George Harding-Rolls, campaign manager at Dutch non-profit Changing Markets Foundation, said “misleading consumers undermines trust”, which “takes seconds to break and takes years and years to recover”.

He pointed at fast fashion giants like H&M releasing “conscious collections” that consumers are increasingly recognising to be misleading. “If you are a brand that is greenwashing or a brand that's making unsubstantiated claims, you are creating an unfair business practice for yourself. You're actually shooting yourself in the foot,” he said.

For that reason, he emphasised that the levers of change we need to focus on are “really well designed legislation and regulation”, noting that certification as it stands “is quite a narrow tool”.

He also touched on the topic of greenhushing, a relatively newer term emerging in the industry that refers to companies under-reporting their sustainability initiatives to avoid scrutiny.

While he recognised that transparency of sustainability initiatives is key, he also noted that greenhushing in some ways can be considered an “important step of removing the smoke screen” of greenwashing. To put it simply, he said: “If you can't make a claim, you shouldn't make a claim.”

Drevland from NCA also emphasised the importance of claims only being made when they can be backed up. “We're not saying that companies shouldn't work with sustainability. That's priority number one,” she said. “But you shouldn't say anything about sustainability until you have control of your supply chains; you have control of human rights issues; you have control over labour rights. You have to have control of these issues before you start saying that your product is more sustainable,” she said.

Sustainable Fashion