Why the H&M Greenwashing Case is important for fashion

Why the H&M Greenwashing Case is important for fashion

Why the H&M Greenwashing Case is important for fashion

Photo-Illustration: El Corte; Photo: Getty Images

Last month, a lawsuit was filed against Swedish fast-fashion giant H&M in New York federal court, accusing it of “greenwashing” or engaging in false advertising about the sustainability of its clothes. The lawsuit was brought by Chelsea Commodore, a SUNY New Paltz marketing student who alleged that she had overpaid for a piece of fashion marketed as “aware” that in fact … she was not. In fact, she claims, several pieces of the brand’s Conscious Collection products were advertised as using less water to make when in fact they used more. H&M claims that the discrepancy was the result of technical problems.

This lawsuit could be a watershed moment (sorry) for fashion. Sustainability as a marketing tactic could disappear. And maybe it should?

H&M is just one example of many fashion companies that benefit from claiming that certain clothes are sustainable. And the lawsuit is the culmination of a decade of fierce global debate. Sure, H&M always ranks first when it comes to transparency, and is more demanding than most about documenting its efforts to reduce its climate footprint in hard numbers. But a June investigation by Quartz showed that its new environmental dashboards for products were misleading. This is happening globally. In the UK, ASOS and Boohoo are being investigated by the Competition and Markets Authority for greenwashing due to their vague claims.

Although the lawsuit has to do with the price of the piece, the allegations in the lawsuit read like a smash hit of all the criticism of the global fashion industry and its unfulfilled promises of reform. They include using vague language such as “closing the loop” and “a conscious choice,” calling products “sustainable” even though they use fossil-fuel-based synthetic materials that remove plastic microfibers, and reclaiming old clothing. to recycle it just to induce customers to buy. more and, more importantly for this suit, to exploit our collective climate guilt to charge us more for clothing of the same quality.

In reality, the big brands have achieved very little. The fashion industry hasn’t significantly reduced its carbon footprint (or even really measured it). Textile-to-textile recycling barely exists, and what the industry calls “recycling” is mostly downcycling to lower-value products and shipping clothing from around the world to low-income countries, where much of it ends up in the dump. Much of the “certified organic” cotton is fake, and fossil fuel-based textiles continue to dominate.

The problem with demand stems from a larger question that the fashion industry isn’t ready to answer: What actually makes a piece of fashion sustainable?

More than a decade ago, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, whose membership now includes nearly 150 retailers, from Amazon to Reformation, as well as factories and nonprofits, was established to answer that question. One of the goals of the SAC was to figure out a way to measure the impacts of a product and then put that on a label for buyers so we could make better decisions.

It turns out to be a very complicated question to answer. Even for the simplest products, a cotton T-shirt, for example, the environmental impacts include growing and harvesting cotton; the chemicals used to degrease, bleach, dye and finish it, and whether the dry cleaner treats its wastewater; electric and coal-fired boilers in factories; and transporting it around the world. Multiply that by a dozen materials for a more complicated product, and again by 25,000, times the number of products H&M places on its website each year, and you get an idea of ​​the scale of data collection required.

So SAC came up with the Higg Index, a set of tools that collects data on the fashion industry’s supply chain and rates it for sustainability. While Higg’s offerings include a module that collects data and rates factories, its materials sustainability index has been the most controversial. Provides dashboards that show on average how much water use, water pollution, fossil fuel use, chemical use, and greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to all kinds of materials, from leather to linen to PVC. (H&M chose to use this average global metric to support its environmental scorecard pilot project.)

But there are different opinions about what it is Really sustainable. For example, PETA has used the scorecards to say that synthetic products are more sustainable than animal products, which the wool and leather trade groups did not like.

Advocates of natural materials say the measures don’t include things like synthetic microfibers, the time it takes for synthetic materials to fully biodegrade (200 years, maybe?), or the fact that the ease of producing cheap polyester from oil has contributed to the increasing amount of disposable fashion. The other criticism leveled at the organization is that any global average of natural materials, coming not from standardized factories but from vastly different farms around the world, will be inaccurate and misleading.

The organization would prefer that interest groups stop using it to compare totally different fibers. It is said that designers should use whatever material they want, for its look, feel and performance, and simply upgrade to a more sustainable organic or recycled version.

“If you’re misleading someone to buy a product based on those claims, that’s false advertising,” says Maxine Bédat, author, fashion sustainability expert, and co-creator of the state’s proposed Fashion Sustainability and Social Responsibility Act. from New York. She says that the Higg material averages should have been used only as a broad starting point, not as a marketing claim about a specific product.

Many people don’t believe that a brand with H&M’s cheap and fast business model can be sustainable, no matter how much cotton is organic and recycled. Higg CEO Jason Kibbey responds to this idea. “If you’re just trying to make it exclusive, so that the cute little boutique brands with cool young founders are the only sustainable ones, you’re not moving the needle,” he says.

Higg was created during a completely different era of “conscious capitalism”, when we thought that if we only educated consumers, they would vote with their dollars for a better world. Given how effective calorie counts are on menus (LOL), there’s not much reason to have faith in this. In fact, despite survey after survey in which consumers say they would pay more for sustainable fashion, we rarely do. This lawsuit could be the death knell for the vaunted “consumer education” theory of change.

Now, as the West Coast burns, the Loire River dries up, Kentucky drowns, and plastic becomes part of the geological record, Higg and H&M find themselves caught in a thorny thicket of anger and despair over whether we can ever repair the damage that the excessive consumption has caused on our planet.

“No, brands shouldn’t be doing that,” says Bédat of displaying fake stats on product pages. “And if it takes a lawsuit to get them to stop doing that, then that’s a powerful way to do it.” But, he points out, the practice of measuring the carbon footprints of products is an entirely new field. She and Kibbey share concern that this lawsuit could halt what little progress the fashion industry has made in measuring and reducing its environmental impacts. “I think we have to… highlight the things that need to change and change them,” she says. “But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

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