Big brands have ramped up sustainability marketing in a bid to cash in on demand for ethical and climate-friendly fashion. Now regulators and consumers are putting those claims to the test.
Last week, the UK’s competition watchdog launched an investigation into sustainability claims made by fast-fashion brands Boohoo, Asos and British supermarket chain Asda’s clothing label George, making fashion its first priority in efforts to address greenwashing concerns. In June, Norway’s Consumer Authority told outerwear brand Norrøna and Swedish fast-fashion giant H&M Group to stop using data from the widely used sustainability benchmarking tool the Higg Index in consumer labels, concluding it could mislead consumers. The European Union is preparing a suite of legislation aimed at curbing fashion’s impact and ensuring any sustainability marketing is credible. And in the US, where regulators have been slower to move, a class action lawsuit was filed accusing H&M of “misleading” sustainability marketing in New York last month.
The moves represent a broad-based crackdown on greenwashing that is rapidly gaining momentum, bringing with it mounting risks of reputational damage, litigation and regulatory censure and fines. Brands should pay close attention as these cases are likely to redefine how the industry can market its sustainability efforts.
“There’s no smoke and mirrors in this anymore,” said Kenneth Loo, co-founder and chief executive of communications firm Chapter 2 Agency. “You have to be transparent and if you’re not, countries are going force that transparency.”
BoF breaks down how brands should prepare.
Mind Your Language
Regulators are particularly focused on vague language that could mislead consumers. For instance, broad terms like “green,” “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” commonly used in fashion marketing give the impression that products have positive environmental attributes. “Unless a business can prove that, it risks falling short of its legal obligations,” the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority said in a new set of guidelines for green marketing that were published last year and form the basis of its current investigations into fast-fashion brands.
“Brands need to really articulate very clearly what they mean by sustainability,” said Whitney McGuire, co-founder of intersectional sustainability initiative Sustainable Brooklyn and fashion attorney. “Their language has to be so much more precise.”
The CMA’s investigation into Boohoo, Asos and Asda focuses in part on the vague language the brands use to label their eco-friendly ranges, named “Ready for the Future,” “The Responsible Edit,” and “George for Good” respectively. The CMA is considering whether such terms give consumers a false impression of the products’ real environmental impact. Amongst other things, the lawsuit against H&M alleges the company oversold its sustainability credentials by using terms like a “conscious choice,” “sustainable materials,” and “close the loop” when describing products and collections.
Boohoo, Asos and Asda said they were cooperating with the CMA in its investigation. H&M said it was taking the allegations seriously and looking into them thoroughly.
Back It Up
To meet toughening regulatory standards, brands need to move beyond buzzwords and do more to substantiate their sustainability claims with robust and transparent information.
That’s likely to mean more legwork as certification schemes and datasets commonly used in the industry, like the Higg Index, themselves come under scrutiny.
“There has to be up-to-date credible evidence to show what you’re talking about,” said Samata Pattinson, chief executive of sustainable fashion consultancy RCGD Global. “A lot of people are pulling from existing facts, which are almost being discredited as we find out more, so there has to be a willingness from the companies, organisations and partners to invest in doing research and to really be able to back up those claims,” she added.
That doesn’t mean every piece of sustainable marketing needs to be an essay, but important caveats or context should be made accessible. The CMA’s Green Claims Code, for example, says that in some cases brands can include a link or QR code providing further information — just make sure that the finer details don’t contradict the snappy slogan.
Ciara Cullen, a UK-based partner at law firm RPC recommends her clients keep a dossier of all data used to substantiate any claims, ideally accompanied by independent third-party verification and a confidential risk assessment before they are published.
When brands are communicating their sustainability efforts, any data needs to be properly and carefully contextualised. For example, stating that a certain type of packaging contains 50 percent less plastic, or producing a certain pair of jeans saved 20 litres of water, means little to the consumer without a baseline figure or point of comparison.
The risk of a disconnect can be made worse by the fact that different areas of a fashion business often have different — sometimes opposing — objectives: A sustainability officer is charged with reducing a brand’s negative impact on the environment; a marketing or sales team, by contrast, is rewarded for propelling growth and shifting more product.
Cecilia Parker Aranha, the CMA’s director of consumer protection, recommends businesses train their staff to ensure “people are speaking the same language, so that you don’t end up in a situation where somebody who works in your sustainability team says, ‘We’re trialling this fabric, which has a lower carbon footprint or lower water footprint,’ and the marketing team runs off and says, ‘This is good for the environment.’”
Think Like a Consumer
It’s arguably every fashion company’s dream to get inside the head of their target customer and understand what makes them tick, in order to successfully sell more product. But brands also stand to benefit from a different kind of market research that poses the question: What do consumers know about sustainable fashion?
Current greenwashing investigations largely come down to the issue of consumer perception, with regulators examining whether brands’ green claims could mislead shoppers and cause them to make misinformed decisions. Brands with a clear read on how consumers are responding to their marketing may have a stronger defence. Boohoo said it surveyed over 1,400 customers on their thoughts about sustainable fashion with a view to ensuring the information in its marketing is clear and straightforward.
It is likely to become more important for brands to play a bigger role in educating consumers about fashion’s impact. That also means offering more transparency around the challenges and limitations of any sustainability efforts.
“We’re steeped in this language of fashion sustainability, and we sometimes think that the consumer is too,” said Carrie Ellen Phillips of communications agency BPCM. “They’re not.”