H&M isn’t the only fashion retailer facing increased scrutiny over its sustainability claims.
Britain’s competition watchdog has its eye on Asos, Boohoo and George at Asda over concerns that the companies are misleading customers by marketing their clothing, footwear and accessories as eco-friendlier than they actually are.
“People who want to ‘buy green’ should be able to do so confident that they aren’t being misled,” Sarah Cardell, interim chief executive of the Competition and Markets Authority, said Friday. “Eco-friendly and sustainable products can play a role in tackling climate change, but only if they are genuine.”
If Asos, Boohoo and George at Asda are found to be in violation of the so-called Green Claims Code, which requires that businesses substantiate environmental claims on goods and services, the CMA will take enforcement action, including requiring the companies to change the way they operate or taking them to court.
The agency has written to the three firms outlining its concerns and will “use its information-gathering powers” to obtain evidence to move its investigation forward, it said. How the probe develops, it added, will depend on the CMA’s assessment of the evidence it amasses.
Asos said it will cooperate with the investigation and is “committed to playing its part in making fashion more sustainable, including providing clear and accurate information about its products.” Boohoo, too, said it will work “collaboratively” with the CMA and is “committed to providing its customers with accurate information on the products they buy.”
Asda, the supermarket chain that operates the George private label, said it ensures that any statements its makes can be supported by industry accreditations and that it welcomes “further work by the CMA to ensure the sustainability claims made by the fashion industry as a whole are robust and clear.”
A review conducted by the watchdog group in January identified potential issues for greenwashing as clothing purveyors increasingly trump up their products’ sustainable credentials to appeal to a growing swath of consumers seeking to shop with the planet in mind.
Red flags, the CMA said, include using statements and language that are “too broad and vague,” overselling an item’s sustainability profile when it contains only a small proportion of recycled or organic content, skipping vital information about what makes a product green and failing to provide sufficient clarity about whether name-dropped accreditation schemes and standards apply to specific products or the business’s wider practices.
“We are all too familiar with brands making false feel-good claims without substantive action to back them up,” Meg Lewis, campaigns lead and company director at Labour Behind the Label, a Bristol-based fashion advocacy group, told Sourcing Journal.
“The fast fashion industry is built on a system which allows clothes to be sold at rock-bottom prices, relying on poverty wages, environmental short-cuts and extractive processes,” she added. “Mass consumption of fashion on the scale that we are seeing can never be sustainable. It is not only the production of clothes that involves toxic chemicals and excessive use of natural resources such as water, but also what happens to them when they are finished their life cycle.”
The industry, Lewis continued, needs “fewer words and more action from fashion brands to reduce production, source responsibly and provide dignified employment.”
With regulators in the United States and European Union also “circling in the water,” the CMA’s actions should send a “strong signal” to all brands and retailers that the “clock is ticking on greenwashing,” said George Harding-Rolls, campaign manager at the Changing Markets Foundation, a London-headquartered think tank whose Greenwash.com website takes aim at brands for tricking customers into thinking they are making eco-friendlier choices when they are not.
Asos’s Responsible Edit, for instance, is “extremely generous” with the garments included in its collection, with cotton from the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) frequently “used as a prop” to justify an item’s inclusion, Harding-Rolls told Sourcing Journal. “This occurs even when BCI cotton is only used in small quantities for the trims or lining,” he said.
Boohoo, he noted, appears to be leaning into recycled polyester to “tap into the green dollar.” The problem with simply switching to recycled synthetics, however, is that it will do “nothing to reduce the brand’s overreliance on fossil fuel-derived fibers, let alone tackling pernicious issues like microfiber release and the culture of disposable ultra-fast fashion that the brand epitomizes,” Harding-Rolls said.
In the case of George at Asda, precision is key. Among the products portrayed as “sustainable,” for example, is a khaki shirt that consists of 98 percent cotton and 2 percent elastane. “It’s unclear where this cotton is from, and blending it with synthetic material reduces its end-of-life options,” Harding-Rolls said. “As per CMA guidelines, providing inaccurate information or not substantiating claims is misleading to consumers.”
Another product, a beige wide-leg knit has a fabric composition of 53 percent viscose, 29 percent polyester and 18 percent polyamide and claims to contain recycled polyester from plastic bottles. “It’s unclear, in this product, what percentage of the material is actually made out of recycled polyester,” he added.
“On a wider point, I think we need to ask what the end goal of these investigations are,” Harding-Rolls said. “Even if claims are substantiated, we cannot buy our way out of the climate crisis and brands need to be having a serious conversation about overproduction which I don’t see happening in any meaningful way.”
The CMA said that because it’s in the initial stage of its investigation, it should not be assumed that any of the three businesses have broken consumer protection law. To other brands not yet in the agency’s cross-hairs, however, Cardell has a warning.
“This is just the start of our work in this sector and all fashion companies should take note: look at your own practices and make sure they are in line with the law,” she said.
The CMA’s investigation follows a class-action lawsuit filed in the Southern District of New York last month against H&M for the alleged use of “false and misleading” environmental scorecards and advertising.
“The goal of H&M’s advertising scheme is to market and sell products that capitalize on the growing segment of consumers who care about the environment, but H&M does so in a misleading and deceptive way,” the lawsuit said. “By falsifying the sustainability profiles and making the sustainability misrepresentations, [the] defendant has 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.”