The fashion industry knows it has an environmental problem — but how some companies are going about handling their contribution to global warming is seemingly indicative that real change is still far from happening.
An April 2022 survey conducted by the Ashkin Group found nearly 80% of American shoppers consider a product’s environmental impact before purchasing it. Around 70% of those surveyed said they would change their shopping habits if they learned that a brand was not operating sustainably.
“This last point is crucial,” Stephen Ashkin, president of the Ashkin Group, wrote alongside the survey’s findings. “We have thousands of companies making Green products. But are the companies making these products operating in a Green and sustainable manner? This is something consumers now want to know.”
It makes sense that brands would start to adapt to the increasing interest in sustainability, but shoppers still need to be wary. “Sustainability,” “green” and “clean” are buzzwords that have started to crop up around marketing, but how the consumer interprets the words versus what the company means by the words can sometimes differ.
Fashion Law pointed out that unlike “organic” in the food industry, which comes with a certification process overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there aren’t any government guidelines for when a brand can call itself “sustainable.”
According to the Ashkin Group’s study, most shoppers consider “sustainability” to mean “reducing waste, recycling, using eco-friendly materials, cutting (greenhouse) gas emissions and engaging in ethical labor practices.” That’s what they’re looking for when they’re shopping.
Instead of authentically changing practices to align with what consumers want, some companies are engaging in “greenwashing” practices. Greenwashing is when a brand misleads shoppers into believing that the company’s practices and products are more sustainable than they really are.
That’s why Chelsea Commodore filed a complaint against fast-fashion giant H&M on July 22 in New York. In the complaint, Commodore accused H&M of greenwashing with “‘misleading’ environmental scorecards” associated with clothing in the brand’s Conscious Collection.
Commodore noted that “a majority” of H&M products that are marketed as being sustainable are “no more sustainable than items in [its] main collection, which are also not sustainable.”
In The Know reached out to H&M for comment on the lawsuit and the Media Relations team responded with: “We are taking the allegations very seriously and look into them thoroughly. We kindly ask for your understanding that we have no further comment to share at this point.”
Commodore references an investigation conducted by Quartz that found H&M’s environmental score cards were sometimes “outright deceptive.” Quartz noted that H&M no longer has the scorecards listed on its site after the company was made aware of the investigation’s findings.
“In the most egregious cases, H&M showed data that were the exact opposite of reality,” Quartz reported. “Of the 600 women’s clothing scorecards on H&M’s UK site last week, more than 100 of them included errors that made less sustainable clothing appear to be the opposite.”
The scoring system H&M used for its clothing is called the Higg Index, which has been adopted by other brands and criticized by environmental groups for being intentionally misleading to consumers. The Higg Index, which is described by Vogue as the fashion “industry’s leading sustainability assessment tool,” is reportedly facing being banned in Norway following the rise of complaints against greenwashing.
The Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, which was proposed in the New York State Assembly in October 2021, was hailed at the time as a historical achievement in the fight for a standard for sustainable fashion. The act relies on the Higg Index.
H&M also states on its site that it is the first global fashion retailer to launch a clothing collecting program — which started in 2013 — as a reason why the brand considers itself sustainable. The program takes unwanted clothes and allegedly resells them as secondhand clothing or remakes them into other products. H&M describes the program as “closing the loop.”
“In 2020, we collected 18,800 tons of unwanted clothes and textiles through our Garment Collecting program,” H&M says. “That’s the equivalent of 94 million T-shirts.”
Recycled clothing still ends up in landfills. Even if H&M’s Garment Collecting program was a great success, overproduction continues to be a massive issue in the fashion industry. In 2019, H&M produced 3 billion garments — including $4.1 billion of unsold clothes.
“When it comes to fast fashion, layering resale into the product offering is just lip service when it’s not paired with a meaningful commitment to change,” Erin Wallace, the vice president of integrated marketing at resale site thredUP, told the site Good on You.
Good on You, which researches and rates companies on how sustainable they actually are, wrote in an Instagram post that the best way to tell if a brand is greenwashing is if it’s fast fashion.
“No fast fashion business model can ever be sustainable,” the post says. “Their greenwashing is merely a distraction from [the] fact that these brands collectively produce billions of throwaway plastic clothes.”
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