Angelika Hellweger of Rahman Ravelli details fashion’s failure to prove its environmental credentials.

The fashion industry is estimated to generate 92 million tons of waste globally every year. The industry also uses over 20 trillion gallons of water annually and contributes to nearly 10% of global emissions. Despite such alarming figures – and the criticism they have prompted – the fashion world appears to have done little to either accurately measure or meaningfully reduce its carbon footprint, despite giving the opposite impression in its marketing campaigns.

Retailers and brands have been accused of claiming to use “certified organic” cotton, although such claims are fake and unsupported by credible data, and of taking back old clothes for recycling only to induce customers to buy more. There is also the allegation that they charge customers more for the same same-quality clothes by labelling them as “sustainable”.

In the UK, mass-market retailers Boohoo, George at Asda and Asos are being investigated for greenwashing by the Competition Markets Authority. Earlier this year, the Norwegian Consumer Authority ruled H&M and outerwear brand Nørrona could no longer use consumer-facing environmental product labels. Only recently, H & M and Decathlon have promised the Netherlands’ Authority for Consumer Markets (ACM) that they will “adjust or no longer use sustainability claims on their clothes and/or websites,” and ensure consumers are better-informed. This followed an investigation into potentially misleading marketing claims found that certain terms like “Ecodesign” and “Conscious” were not clear or sufficiently substantiated. Additionally, each firm has agreed to make additional charitable donations to projects working to improve the environmental sustainability of fashion: H&M has pledged €500,000 and, Decathlon, £400,000. The ACM will work with the firms over the next two years to ensure the labels are changed and the donations made. In light of these commitments from the two companies, the ACM will not impose sanctions.

Meanwhile, in the US, H&M is the subject of a class-action lawsuit filed in the state of New York, which levels similar criticisms at its sustainability claims. The claimant purchased several items H&M sold under the label “conscious choice.” According to the retailer’s marketing materials, those products are made with “at least 50% or more sustainable materials”. But they are not. H&M misrepresented the nature of its products at the expense of consumers who pay a price premium in the belief that they are buying truly sustainable and environmentally friendly clothing. According to the lawsuit, H&M created a misleading illusion “that old clothes are simply turned into new garments, or that clothes will not end up in a landfill” and “recycling solutions either do not exist or are not commercially available at scale for the vast majority” of H&M’s products. The claimant argues, “it would take H&M more than a decade to recycle what it sells in a matter of days’’. This class action suit against H&M relates to financial damages that consumers suffered when paying more for garments more under the impression that they were paying for a more consciously and sustainably-made product.

It has to be noted that if the relevant enforcement authorities find that a retailer has been greenwashing an individual investor can and will use those findings as the basis for their own individual consumer / investor and / or class action claim. It is to be assumed that the fashion industry will soon - in addition to aggressive enforcement actions by regulators - be confronted with a massive flood of civil claims and will then recognise the severe effect that greenwashing might have on its business. Retailers are thus well advised to reconsider their sustainability strategy and their marketing communication with future possible regulatory compliance in mind. Failure to do so would leave many looking less eye-catching than they intended.