It’s 2023. Going green really ought to be a moot point by now.
After all, fashion is changing as a response to the global wakeup call chiming in on the industry’s negative impacts: a substantial carbon footprint, excessive waste generation, exploitative labour practices, and contributions to pollution and habitat destruction.
Furthermore, consultancy firm Bain & Company found that two out of every three shoppers care about the environment. Their survey also revealed that people are willing to pay a 25% premium or more for sustainable products. And while interest isn’t action just yet, the pressure to become more responsible, more ethical, more transparent and more, exists. Brands of all sizes are trying to transform their businesses to better suit this demand.
So with all of this positive momentum, it is sad to see that so much effort is being diverted into greenwashing.
Maybe you recall the backlash against a recent collaboration between e-retailer Boohoo and a certain Kardashian. A celebrity promoting a capsule collection of 45 styles – made only partially from recycled polyester – doesn’t make up for the estimated 40,000 styles sold annually.
A growing number of brands and companies are finally being investigated and exposed for greenwashing, so keep reading to know who some of them are.
- Year: 2022-2023
- Who called it out: Competition and Markets Authority (CMA)
- Type of greenwashing: general
- Where: UK
Rumours that the CMA would be investigating fashion brands for greenwashing started swirling in July 2022.
Two weeks before the case was officially opened, ASOS quietly took down the “Responsible Edit” on its website. The range, launched in June 2019, was a one-stop shop for thousands of environmental choices from brands. Products were included if they met certain, though publicly unknown, criteria regarding recycled materials and/or sustainable fibres. Web visitors could also filter products by material type. Both the edit and filter disappeared on July 15th, 2022, without any announcement. We say it’s a sketchy move.
At the time of writing, CMA’s investigation is still ongoing. And the list of issues they’re examining is a lengthy one. But the interesting part? It’s not just ASOS. The CMA is simultaneously looking into ASOS, Boohoo and Asda. About time.
- Year: 2022
- Who called it out: Norwegian Consumer Authority (NCA)
- Type of greenwashing: lack of transparency in sustainability ratings
- Where: Norway
The Higg Index - a suite of tools measuring environmental and social impact - was the industry standard for sustainability. Last year, it became the star of one of the biggest greenwashing scandals.
In April 2022, Higg Inc. - the tech company behind the index, and a start-up spun off the influential trade group Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) - raised more than $50 million in funding. They were eyeing expansion into product categories beyond fashion. In June, the NCA banned outerwear brand Norrøna from using consumer-facing labels, which included data from the Higg Index. H&M received a warning for engaging in similar marketing practices. In October, the Norwegian regulating body and its Dutch counterpart published a joint guidance report on the use of the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (Higg MSI), saying the information lacked comprehensiveness and transparency. In other words, this tool alone doesn’t say anything about the sustainability of your product/s.
Higg Inc. rebrands as Worldly to distance itself from its suite of #sustainability metrics Higg Index, which last year was accused of #greenwashing, with #fashion brands such as @hm dropping its use after the scandal. https://t.co/4duNVzEVDl @BoF #fastfashion— Greenwash.com (@greenwashdotcom) May 19, 2023
- Year: 2022
- Who called it out: Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM)
- Type of greenwashing: unsubstantiated claims
- Where: Netherlands
Are you all that surprised to see H&M on here? Probably not. Are you surprised to know this isn’t their first greenwashing incident? Again, probably not.
The fast fashion behemoth has been under fire several times in the past two years. They were called out by a Changing Markets Foundation 2021 report as the top offender (at 96%) for insincere sustainability claims. The following year, ACM carried out a full investigation on H&M. What did they find? Terms like “eco-design” and “conscious” were often used without cold hard facts to back them up. H&M removed sustainability-related labels from their website and products. No monetary penalty was given, but the Swedish brand agreed to donate €400,000 to sustainable causes, “to compensate for their use of unclear and insufficiently substantiated sustainability claims.”
The amount isn’t much when you consider H&M’s 2022 net sales were around the €21 billion mark. And they made over €300 million in profit after tax. Really, the donation is peanuts. But it’s also a symbolic move by the ACM that says no one is too big to not get noticed.
- Year: 2022
- Who called it out: the public
- Type of greenwashing: charity as a PR stunt
- Where: everywhere
This ultra-fast fashion giant is no stranger to criticism. More or less at the same time as their highly-publicized influencer trip incident, Shein was attacked for a multi-million dollar donation made to The Or Foundation: a nonprofit known for their work on waste colonialism and environmental justice in Ghana. At the Global Fashion Summit 2022, they announced that they were receiving $15 million from Shein’s responsibility fund, which is supposedly in place to help fight the textile waste crisis. All in all, it received mixed reactions.
For Or and the impoverished Ghanaian communities they support, financing - regardless of where or who it comes from - is a desperately needed resource. When part of their reality is having no better option than to carry bales of textile waste from the Global North for as little as $3 per day, priorities are different. More money doesn’t only mean higher wages, but funding to pursue circular initiatives, better social programmes, etc.
On the other hand, Shein’s handout really doesn’t fix the fact that they’re very much a huge reason why fashion’s problems exist in the first place. For many critics, it’s simply an extreme example of greenwashing - one that allows Shein to go on with business as usual. And what’s $15 million, when you’re a company raking in $30 billion in annual sales?
- Year: 2021
- Who called it out: Advertising Ethics Jury (AEJ)
- Type of greenwashing: deceptive product advertising
- Where: France
In 2017, Adidas made the commitment to replace virgin polyester with recycled polyester by 2024. When releasing a new generation of its iconic Stan Smith sneakers, they were marketed as “50% recycled”. Alongside that was an “end plastic waste” logo.
Source: Adidas Originals
The media response was overall pretty positive. But the message about using recycled material drew the attention of France’s AEJ. After all, the French are notorious for being first-movers when it comes to sustainability regulations. In the spring of 2021, the advertising watchdog received a consumer complaint and an investigation into the brand of Three Stripes followed. The main concern was that the ad didn’t allow people to understand what proportion of the shoe was 50% recycled. Unless they read the fine print (and most of us rarely do), they wouldn’t have caught that it was only a small part.
At the end of the day, the AEJ has no authority to sanction corporations that break French advertising law. So for now, the decision is the penalty.
A word to the wise
Despite the absurdity in the examples above, it's reassuringly hopeful to see governments and regulating bodies getting involved. A mere two months ago, the Changing Markets Founding brought to light another revelation. Many take-back programmes turned out to be nothing more than gimmicks, only perpetuating the problems of linear fashion.
Sure, the average person needs to be more proactive in doing research to make more informed decisions. But brands need to be held more accountable. Marketing, in particular, holds an incredible power in fashion.At POMP, we always try to be the most transparent with our sustainability practices.