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Higg How-To Hopes to Get Rid of Greenwashing

Dutch and Norwegian authorities have issued joint guidance, based on current European Union law, on how the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) can continue to use the Higg Materials Sustainability Index to make environmental claims without running afoul of greenwashing regulations designed to protect consumers from misleading information.

The impact-scoring platform, better known as the MSI, has been at the center of rulings that deemed it unfit for purpose. Over the summer, the Norwegian Consumer Authority (NCA) declared that Norrøna was “breaking the law” when it touted some of its products as better for the planet based on MSI data. (It warned H&M against doing the same as well.) In September, the ​​Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) told Decathlon and H&M to amend or withdraw from their clothing and websites their respective “Ecodesign” and “Conscious Choice” designations. The criteria for inclusion was ill-defined and any assertions insufficiently substantiated, the agency said, making it difficult for consumers to have confidence in the claims’ veracity. In lieu of sanctions, the brands each made donations of 400,000 euros ($388,000) and 500,000 euros ($485,000) to different sustainable fashion charities.

One problem, the Dutch and Norwegian bodies said in their 11-page document, is that the use of global average data does not “constitute documentation” for a product-specific claim.

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In Norrøna’s case, the brand had used Higg MSI data to indicate that its organic cotton T-shirts generated 14 percent less emissions, used 9 percent less fossil fuels, consumed 88 percent less water and produced 47 percent less water pollution than their conventional counterparts. Because the information provided referred to the average environmental attributes of the cotton fiber, not those of the specific finished items, there was insufficient proof that the claimed impact reductions were “true and correct,” the NCA said in its ruling.

“The global average numbers presented to the consumer should be based on representative data,” the ACM and NCA wrote. “This means that if there are significant variations from country to country or region to region in the numbers presented to the consumer, this should be reflected in the data constituting the basis for the global average numbers. For example, if it is likely from a scientific point of view that water usage for organic cotton and/or conventional cotton varies from country to country and/or region to region, the data underlying the averages should reflect this. If not, the data underlying the numbers will not be representative. Presentation of these numbers to consumers may then be misleading.”

The ACM and NCA also urged the SAC, whose roster includes more than 280 members from Amazon to Zara, to put any claims in context. At present, the Higg MSI measures five cradle-to-gate impact categories: global warming potential, nutrient pollution in water, water scarcity, fossil fuel depletion and chemistry. Besides the vagueness of some of the terminology—what does global warming potential mean, for instance?—the numbers, when taken in tandem, still fall short of measuring a material’s environmental impact across its entire life cycle, or cradle to cradle.

“The SAC needs to make clear what cradle-to-gate means to consumers, as this will not be self-explanatory to the average consumer,” they said. “The SAC should clearly inform the consumer of which possible environmental impacts—in the life cycle of a product—are not reflected in the numbers presented…e.g., [the] impact of transportation, variations in durability and repairability, [how] the item [is] being used and washed, handling of the item when discarded, etc.”

Claims must also be reassessed and updated as necessary, the document said. With Norrøna, the NCA found that the claims being communicated through the Higg MSI had expired. The SAC also did not provide documentation to prove that the data sets were still scientifically relevant and fit for use. When the Higg MSI builds on outdated data sets, the guidance said, neither the index nor the claims made through it can be regarded as “sufficiently documented.”

Above all, the “meaning of the claim” must be made evident to the consumer, the authorities said. Consumers should be left in no doubt about what the numbers being brandished are comparing—or if they should be compared in the first place. If a product comprises multiple materials, companies shouldn’t be cherry-picking the data they choose to include, especially if the featured information refers to components that are present only in insignificant amounts. Omissions can be just as misleading as bad or ambiguous data, the authorities said.

In the wake of the Norrøna ruling, the SAC said it would be commissioning an independent third-party expert review of the data and methodology behind the Higg MSI. In their guidance, the ACM and NCA reiterated the importance of doing so, adding that the claims based on the Higg MSI are “seemingly based on complex methodology and data, and the relevance of the data sets for comparisons [is] unclear.” A periodic review of data sets will also be necessary, they said.

“The authorities agree with the SAC that it is positive that the textile industry wishes to display credible data to the consumers about the materials used in garments,” the regulators added. “However, when information is presented to consumers, it is important that this information is correct, substantiated, and not presented in a misleading manner.”

In a statement provided to Sourcing Journal, the SAC said it was grateful for the guidance and what it called “productive discussions” with the NCA. While the document isn’t a formal, legally binding framework, the “important task” is not working through it with legal and topic experts to explore its “feasibility of application” in line with the wider European regulations.

“The Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s role is to establish common ground with all parties of the apparel and footwear industry and work with our members to lessen their impact. We enable brands, retailers and manufacturers to measure, improve and share their sustainability performance,” the trade group said. “To assist the industry in moving forward, we need harmonized regulations and clear, coordinated information on how information can be presented to consumers. Our ambition, following the next phase of collaboration with the NCA and the European Commission, is to provide guidance for our members, and the wider industry, to ensure all environmental claims are as robust as possible.”

The news comes amid a broader reckoning over unsubstantiated green claims. Just last month, German retailer Zalando dropped its sustainability “flag” after a jury appointed by the Norwegian Consumer awarded the German e-tailer with its inaugural greenwashing “prize.” Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority is also investigating Asos, Boohoo and George by Asda for potential greenwashing. And over in New York, H&M is at the center of a lawsuit accusing it of using “false and misleading” environmental scorecards and advertising.