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UK Watchdog Going After Greenwashers

Britain just put fashion’s greenwashers on notice.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the United Kingdom’s competition watchdog, said Friday that it has begun a review of the increasing number of environmental marketing claims in the apparel and footwear retail sector. These include assertions that individual items of clothing are sustainable, better for the environment or made from recycled or organic materials, it said.

The agency said it will consider taking further action should it uncover evidence of non-compliance. If it finds any breaches of consumer law, it may take appropriate action even before the formal inquiry begins. Other industries, including beauty and food and drink, will be investigated “in due course.”

“Our work so far indicates that there could be issues with greenwashing in the fashion sector and that’s why we’ve prioritized this area for further investigation,” Cecilia Parker Aranha, the CMA’s director of consumer protection, said in a statement. “People are becoming increasingly aware of the negative impact that fashion can have on our planet. We know many shoppers are actively looking for brands which are doing good things for the environment, and we want to make sure the claims they see are stacking up.”

Brands and retailers are trumping up their products’ sustainable attributes to appeal to a growing swath of consumers seeking to shop with the environment in mind. But not all of them hold water. A recent survey of consumer business websites by the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network, a network of consumer-protection authorities spanning 65 countries, found that as many as 40 percent of environmental claims could be leading consumers astray. In another report released last year, the Changing Markets Foundation said that 59 percent of claims by the biggest European brands, including Asos, H&M and Zara, are unsubstantiated and misleading to shoppers.

“Many brands still make misleading claims about how they are making their products more ‘recyclable,’ despite having neither a takeback scheme nor fiber-to-fiber recycling technology in place,” the Changing Markets Foundation wrote. “Greenwashing was rampant across the targets the brands disclosed to us, including claims of using ‘sustainable,’ ‘preferred,’ ‘sustainably sourced’ or ‘sustainably made’ materials, the criteria for which were often ill-defined.”

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The CMA’s probe follows its publication of new guidelines on green claims in September. The so-called Green Claims Code requires businesses to first and foremost be truthful by living up to the pronouncements they make about their products, services, brands and activities. Messaging must not only be “clear and unambiguous” but it must also be backed up by robust, credible and up-to-date evidence that considers the full life cycle of a product, not just one aspect of it. Equally important is not hiding or omitting evidence. Claims, the CMA said, must not prevent a consumer from making an informed choice because information has been left out.

“Now is the time for the fashion industry to take a fresh look at what they’re telling customers and make any changes needed to comply with the law,” Aranha said. “Businesses that can’t back up their claims risk action from the CMA and damage to their reputation in the long-run.”