Photo illustration: Cut.Photo: Getty Images
Last month, Swedish fast-fashion giant H&M filed a lawsuit in New York federal court, accusing the company of “greenwashing” or falsely advertising the sustainability of its clothing. The lawsuit was brought by her Chelsea Commodore, a marketing student at SUNY New Paltz. She claimed she overpaid for a fashion piece marketed as “Conscious,” but really… she wasn’t. In fact, she claims that some of her Conscious Collection products from the brand were advertised as using less water in their manufacturing when they actually use more water. H&M claims this discrepancy is the result of technical problems.
This lawsuit could be a watershed moment (unfortunately) for the fashion world. Sustainability as a marketing strategy may disappear. And maybe it should?
H&M is just one example of many fashion companies profiting from claiming that certain garments are sustainable. And this lawsuit is the culmination of a decade of heated global debate. Indeed, H&M consistently ranks first when it comes to transparency, and is more rigorous than most companies when it comes to documenting their efforts to reduce their climate footprint with concrete numbers. But his June survey by Quartz showed that the product’s new environmental scorecard is misleading. This is happening globally. In the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority is investigating his alleged greenwashing of ASOS and Boohoo’s ambiguous claims.
Although the lawsuit is concerned with the price of the work, the accusations in the lawsuit read like the biggest blow of all the criticism of the global fashion industry and the broken promise of reform. Using vague terms like ‘close the loop’ and ‘conscious choice’, calling products ‘sustainable’ even though they use fossil fuel-based synthetics that shed plastic microfibers. , including collecting used clothing for recycling and using it solely to encourage customers to purchase. Plus, most importantly for this suit, it exploits our collective climate guilt to charge more for the same quality of clothing.
In practice, the big brands are doing very little. The fashion industry has not significantly reduced (or even measured) its carbon footprint. Textile-to-textile recycling is almost non-existent, and what the industry calls “recycling” is mostly downcycling to lower-value products, shipping garments worldwide to low-income countries. much of it ends up in landfills.
The lawsuit stems from a larger question that the fashion industry is not ready to answer.
More than a decade ago, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition was formed to answer this question, with nearly 150 retailers as members, from Amazon to Reformation, as well as factories and nonprofits. One of SAC’s goals was to come up with a way to measure product impact and put it on the shopper’s label to help them make better choices.
It turned out to be a very complicated question to answer. The environmental impact of even the simplest product such as a cotton t-shirt includes growing and harvesting cotton. The chemicals used for scouring, bleaching, dyeing and finishing, and whether the dye shop treats the wastewater. A boiler that uses factory electricity and coal as fuel. and transport it around the world. This, he multiplies by 12 ingredients for a more complex product, and he multiplies by 25,000 (the number of products H&M lists on his website in a year) to get the data needed. You can see the scale of the collection.
That’s why SAC devised the Higg Index, a set of tools that collect data and assess sustainability in the fashion industry’s supply chain. Higg’s products include modules that collect and evaluate data from factories, but its Material Sustainability Index is the most controversial.It offers a scorecard that shows on average Water use, water pollution, fossil fuel use, chemical use, and greenhouse gas emissions can come from all kinds of materials, from leather to linen to PVC. (H&M chose to use this average global metric to power its Environmental Scorecard pilot project.)
But there are different opinions about what it is actually Sustainable. For example, PETA used its scorecard to say that synthetics are more sustainable than animal products, something the wool and leather industry groups didn’t like.
Advocates of natural materials say the measurements don’t include synthetic microfibers, the time it takes synthetic materials to fully biodegrade (perhaps 200 years?), or the fact that cheap polyester can be easily produced from petroleum. say no. Disposable fashion continues to grow. Another criticism placed on the organization is that global averages for natural materials that come from very different farms around the world rather than from standardized factories would be inaccurate and misleading.
The organization wants interest groups to stop using it to compare dissimilar fibers. I have been told that I should upgrade to an organic or recycled version.
“If you’re inducing someone to buy a product based on those claims, it’s false advertising,” says author and fashion sustainability expert in New York State. says Maxine Beda, co-creator of the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act. She says that Higg’s substance average should have been used merely as a rough starting point, rather than as a marketing claim about a particular product.
Many people don’t believe that a brand like H&M with a cheap and fast business model is sustainable no matter how much organic or recycled cotton they use. Higg CEO Jason Kibbey refutes the idea. “If just trying to be exclusive and only cute little boutique-like brands with cool young founders are going to be sustainable, then there’s no change,” he says.
Higg was created in a completely different era of “conscious capitalism”. I thought that if I just educated consumers, they would vote with their money for a better world. Considering how effective the calorie count on the menu has been (laughs), there’s not much reason to believe this. This lawsuit may be the death knell for the vaunted “consumer education” change theory.
Now, with the West Coast burning, the Loire River drying up, Kentucky submerged, and plastic forming as part of the geological record, both Higg and H&M are trapped in a thorny bush of fury. and despair as to whether the damage can be repaired. Overconsumption has brought to our planet.
“No, brands shouldn’t do that,” Beda says of displaying false stats on product pages. “And if they need a lawsuit to stop it, that’s a powerful way to do it.” But she notes that measuring the carbon footprint of products is a whole new field. To do. She and Kibby share concerns that the lawsuit could halt the modest progress the fashion industry has made toward measuring and reducing its environmental impact. “I think we need to change them,” she says. “But don’t throw your baby out with the hot water.”