Sustainable fashion is in vogue and retail chains are all too eager to respond to consumers who want to shop more environmentally consciously. ‘Sustainable’, ‘ecological’, and ‘environmentally ethical’ are words that we see appearing more and more often in fashion advertising. But are these clothes and materials really environmentally friendly? Or is this just a convenient marketing tool (so-called greenwashing)? In this piece we will take a closer look at this and give some practical legal guidelines for advertising sustainable fashion.
To greenwash or not to greenwash? Problems with advertising for sustainable materials in Europe
A study by the European Commission (‘Consumer market study on environmental claims for non-food products’, 2014) shows that both green claims and misleading marketing occur in the European fashion industry. Some fashion companies claim that their garments are made of sustainable materials. However, the central issue is that no European legal standards have been established to verify claims of sustainability. Moreover, there is no guidance to consumers and other market players to find out what exactly is meant by so-called “sustainable” materials and how they can be verified. Without these standards, consumers may consider a piece of clothing more environmentally conscious than it really is. For example, some collections claim to be “sustainable” fashion because they are made of 100 percent cotton, Tencel, or recycled polyester. Therefore, when ‘green claims’ are made in a sector, the question of misleading advertising arises.
European ban on misleading advertising for sustainable materials
Misleading advertising is classified under European law as an unfair market practice and is prohibited. A market practice is considered misleading when it contains false information and statements. Advertising is also considered to be misleading if it deceives or is likely to deceive the average consumer as to the main characteristics of the product (such as its benefits, composition or process) influencing the consumer’s decision to make a purchase that they would not otherwise have made, even if the information is factually correct.
The ‘Compliance Criteria on Environmental Claims,‘ published in 2016, obliges market players to present their environmental claims in a specific, accurate, and unambiguous way. In order to comply with these criteria, advertisements for environmental claims must avoid vague wording or, in the case of general wording, sufficiently substantiate claims.
In practice, an advertisement for allegedly sustainable fashion items should contain the following indications:
- The statement ‘made with recycled material’ must be clear and prominent;
- The trader should be able to substantiate that the entire product, excluding minor, incidental components, is made from recycled material;
- In general, the recycled material should make the product more environmentally friendly, creating an overall environmental benefit;
- The ad’s context does not imply other misleading claims.
In addition, companies should be prepared to provide scientific evidence in a clear manner in case a claim is contested.
Possible solution: the European certification mark
A possible solution for this is a certification mark. A certification mark is a mark that indicates a certain characteristic of goods or services of different companies. It usually arises as a convention between a group of industry participants and guarantees that the goods or services meet a certain standard, regardless of the company that produces the goods or services. By analogy, “Fairtrade”, a label that enables consumers to easily identify products whose ingredients originate from fair trade.
In the context of the fashion industry, the merit of a certification mark could therefore be to reassure consumers that certain garments are genuinely environmentally friendly or have certain clearly verifiable environmentally friendly characteristics. To date, however, such a guarantee or certification brand is not yet available in Belgium. In Germany, the first pilot project of the German authorities to award a ‘Grüner Knopt’ for textile products meeting certain social and environmental requirements was launched in September 2019.
In anticipation of a possible certification mark, industry participants in the European Union would do well to provide more information with regard to the qualities they promise. Consumers, in turn, are advised to remain vigilant and critical towards promising advertising. To this end, they can already make use of existing organizations or applications (such as “Good on you” and “Rank a Brand”) that inform consumers about, among others, the ecological efforts of certain fashion brands.