H&M is stripping its “Conscious Choice” indicator from its online store worldwide, a process that it says will be complete by the end of October. Instead of using the phrase “more sustainable material” to highlight a garment’s recycled or organic content, the Swedish retailer’s product detail pages will refer to “additional material information.”
In stores, green hangtags that say “Conscious Choice” will remain during a “transition period” until spring 2023, when new hangtags without words start arriving in stores.
H&M admitted that it was doing so, in part, because of a recent admonishment by the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) for employing nebulous, unsubstantiated terms that could mislead consumers into thinking certain products are better for the environment than they really are.
Decathlon, a French sporting goods retailer, also drew the Dutch regulator’s scrutiny for a similar reason. How products qualify under its “Ecodesign” label is not only unclear, the ACM said, but the claim itself is also ill-defined.
The ACM said that it won’t impose fines or sanctions on either company, though this could change if future violations occur.
In return, both retailers have agreed to amend or remove the declarations from their clothing and websites. Decathlon and H&M have also promised to make respective donations of 400,000 euros ($399,000) and 500,000 euros ($499,000) to different sustainable fashion charities to “compensate for their use of unclear and insufficiently substantiated sustainability claims.”
“Consumers that wish to make sustainable choices must be able to have confidence in the veracity of the claims that businesses make on their products or websites,” said Cateautje Hijmans van den Bergh, an ACM board member. “We are pleased to see that these companies have acknowledged that they should have informed consumers more clearly about the sustainability aspects of their products, and that they will adjust various sustainability claims and their substantiations. They will also take measures to inform their customers better in the future.”
Businesses that wish to promote their products using sustainability claims, the ACM said, must make sure that such claims are “correct, clear, and verifiable.” Its rules of thumb for “honest” green claims include making clear the sustainability benefit a product offers; substantiating sustainability claims with up-to-date facts; ensuring fairness when making comparisons with other products, services or companies; and making sure that visual claims and labels are useful to consumers, not confusing.
H&M said it has taken note of concerns raised by the ACM regarding its communications in the Netherlands and that it acknowledges that the sustainability information it provided on its website could have been clearer and more comprehensive.
On a section of its website called “Conscious Choice Explained,” the retailer states that Conscious Choice products are “pieces created with a little extra consideration for the planet.” Each Conscious Choice item contains at least 50 percent of “more sustainable” materials such as organic cotton or recycled polyester, it said, but “many contain a lot more than that.” With recycled cotton, it accepts a lower threshold of 20 percent because of quality issues that come with a higher proportion of the fiber.
“Conscious Choice can be found across all our departments, all year round. Just look for the green hangtag!” H&M added. All of this will likely disappear in the purge as well.
“Changes are being made through which we commit to better informing our customers about the composition of our products and thus improving our sustainability communications,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “Moving forward, it is our aim to do better in sharing more comprehensive and elaborate information about our sustainability efforts. We highlight that the concerns raised by the ACM have not been about providing false information. H&M continuously undertakes measures regarding its operations to [remain] fully compliant with applicable laws and regulations and hopes that through its open dialogue and interactive dialogue with the ACM, it can realize clearer sustainability communication in the future.”
Decathlon did not respond to a request for comment.
This isn’t the first time H&M has been in the hot seat due to its green assertions. In June, the Norwegian Consumer Authority (NCA) warned the fast-fashion chain that using Higg Materials Sustainability Index data in its marketing claims could be considered “misleading” and a breach of greenwashing laws, even though it wasn’t doing so in Norway at the time. The NCA’s decision that Norrøna, which was using the Higg-based Transparency Program to tout the sustainability of some of its T-shirts, was “breaking the law,” however, led to a suspension of the scheme.
The Norwegian watchdog told H&M to “familiarize” itself with the Norrøna verdict and to align its marketing accordingly.
The following month, the world’s second-largest fashion producer by revenue found itself at the center of a class-action lawsuit that accused it of deceiving consumers about its sustainability credentials through the use of “false and misleading” environmental scorecards and advertising. Lead plaintiff Chelsea Commodore argued that H&M’s “misrepresentations” included characterizing its products are “conscious,” a “conscious choice,” made from “sustainable materials” and prevented, through its recycling program, “from going to the landfill.” The last point, she said, was especially misleading because recycling solutions either do not exist or are not commercially available at scale for the “vast majority” of products.
“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, which was filed in the Southern District of New York, 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.”
The backlash over greenwashing is shaping up to be an industry-wide reckoning.
Over in the United Kingdom, Asos, Boohoo and George at Asda are also being questioned about the authenticity of their sustainable declarations.
“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 watchdog, said last month. “Eco-friendly and sustainable products can play a role in tackling climate change, but only if they are genuine.”
Should Asos, Boohoo and George at Asda be found to be in violation of the so-called Green Claims Code, which requires that businesses back up environmental claims on goods and services, the CMA could take enforcement action by requiring the companies to change the way they operate. In a worst-case scenario, it could take them to court.
On Tuesday, however, Kourtney Kardashian Barker, Boohoo’s “newest ambassador with a focus on sustainability” didn’t appear bothered by criticism that their work together was “peak greenwashing,” as one Twitter user put it. In fact, she said the response was what she had wanted.
“Boohoo approached me to be a sustainability ambassador, and though I knew it would get backlash because the two just don’t go hand in hand, I thought about the fact that fast fashion, or the fashion industry in general, isn’t going anywhere,” the reality TV star wrote on Instagram hours before her first capsule collection with the brand debuted at New York Fashion Week. “I thought about the attention this collaboration would bring to people who may otherwise have no idea about the impacts of fast fashion on our planet. I thought about how pushing Boohoo to make some initial changes and then holding them accountable to larger change would be impactful.”
“It’s definitely making some noise which is exactly what I was hoping for,” Kardashian Barker added. “I certainly don’t have all the answers, but for someone who has done a fast fashion line collaboration in the past, which didn’t get backlash because I was not calling attention to trying to make better changes, I feel proud about doing it with intention and purpose.”
While H&M isn’t a target of the CMA’s investigation, it has reason to be on guard. An assessment by the Changing Markets Foundation last year found that 96 percent of the company’s green claims flouted the agency’s guidelines “in some way.” Some product pages, for instance, offered no information on recycled feedstock, while certain organic and recycled materials were not supported by any third-party certifications.
The idea of recycled polyester as a sustainable material is also iffy, the corporate watchdog. Plastic bottles, once “downcycled” into clothes, cannot be recycled again, at least not at scale. Once tossed, they become fodder for the landfill. Intercepting bottles this way also takes them out of a truly circular system that allows them to be remade into new ones multiple times, reducing the amount of virgin fossil fuels required.
“H&M makes a big deal of its Conscious Collection,” the Changing Markets Foundation said at the time. “To qualify for that collection, ‘a product must contain at least 50 percent sustainable materials, such as organic cotton and recycled polyester.‘ However, little further information is given as to what qualifies as a ‘sustainable material.’”
H&M told Sourcing Journal that transparency, including that of product information, has “always been a cornerstone” of its sustainability strategy.
“We have been committed to increasing our level of transparency for many years. It allows our customers to make informed purchasing decisions,” the spokesperson said. “Today, clear legal frameworks around sustainability communication are lacking. In order to create progress, both H&M as a company and the industry need to start taking collective action now. As a company, H&M is committed to learn and adapt.”