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Green marketing and greenwashing in sustainable fashion

June 7, 2022
Green Marketing

There is a fine line between promoting sustainability and greenwashing, especially when it comes to fashion. Last year, Patagonia, one of the leading sustainable fashion brands, announced to stop using the word – sustainable, as an urgent response to climate change. Every piece of clothing being produced leaves carbon footprints on earth, from raw material creation to the transportation of final products. That’s why words such as ‘sustainable’, ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘green’ are often regarded as a marketing ploy that makes these product sustainability claims ambiguous.

An infamous example – H&M’s conscious collection and its sustainability credentials are not only questioned by consumers but also regulators such as the Norwegian Consumer Authority. Though H&M claims the conscious collection is made from “sustainably sourced” materials, the positive environmental impact of the products are not explained or backed up with any sufficient evidence. Hence, the importance of substantiating green claims must be highlighted in any brand’s green marketing and communications strategy.

As a result of rampant greenwashing, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) released the Green Claims Code after finding out that up to 40 percent of green claims made online could be misleading. Similarly, Changing Markets Foundation found out that 59% of sustainability claims by European brands were unsubstantiated.

In addition, the Norwegian Consumer Authority has recently started investigating the use of Higg Index ‘sustainability profiles’ on clothing labels as part of a crackdown on greenwashing.

The reality is — the fashion industry has been criticized for merely touting their sustainability credentials without addressing the climate damage caused by production and overproduction. The industry is facing an enormous challenge due to the lack of standardization and legally binding framework to regulate sustainability claims and govern the information brands have to disclose. After all, what consumers expect from brands is for them to uphold their environmental responsibilities and to be transparent about their environmental impact as well as their sustainability efforts and claims.

The good news is that various guidelines regarding product sustainability claims are being established by governmental institutions and market regulators, to protect the interest of consumers.

  • The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) has brought out rules of thumb for sustainability claims as well as started inquiring about the misleading sustainability claims in three selected sectors, one of which was apparel in 2021.
  • The CMA issued their ‘Green Claims Code’ in September last year to help businesses understand how to communicate their green credentials. In early 2022, Bloomberg reported that the fashion sector has become the first target of upcoming CMA’ greenwashing investigations.
  • The Danish Consumer Ombudsman has announced that any sustainability claims made must be based on a lifecycle analysis data. The new Danish guidelines also stress the importance of having accurate information and data in sustainability marketing and communications.
  • The beginning of 2022 saw an exciting development from New York state in the U.S. – New York is seeking to pass a Fashion Sustainability Act as legislation to regulate the fashion industry’s social and environmental impacts.

To stay up-to-date on the latest green legislative landscape, check out our Going Beyond Greenwashing Guide.

So, how can fashion brands make sustainability claims correctly?

“Many brands use publicly available summaries to make claims about the relative sustainability of their products, so such breaches are a common problem for both brands and consumers. This is a fact underlined by rising regulation to stamp out greenwashing.” What’s more, generic, self-branded and self-declared environmental claims are oftentimes not evidence-based and therefore unverifiable. Sustainability claims without any credible evidence and accurate data are prone to greenwashing. To make the transition to sustainable fashion, the industry needs a common language and an evidence-based approach to measure the environmental impact and regulate sustainability claims.

In fact, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has developed globally accepted standards for making environmental product claims, which are categorized in three different types.

  • Type I – ISO 14024:2018, which entails environmental labeling concerning environmental product claims that meet a set of requirements either set by a governmental body or a private organization.
  • Type II – ISO 14021:2016, which specifies requirements for self-declared environmental claims.
  • Type III – ISO 14025:2006, which requires environmental claims to present environmental information on the life cycle of a product that is based on independently verified life cycle assessment (LCA) data, life cycle inventory analysis (LCI) data.

Whether you are making Type II environmental claims to evaluate your business case or communicate your impact internally, or making Type III sustainable product claims, an LCA study can provide you with the assurance and foundation to make such claims.

As a matter of fact, Type III is in line with CMA’s rules – “claims must consider the full life cycle of the product or service,” as well as the Danish Consumer Ombudsman’s guidelines. What’s more, according to the EU’s initiative on substantiating green claims, it is important that claims on the environmental performance of companies and products are reliable, comparable and verifiable. Brands ought to “substantiate these against a standard methodology to assess their impact on the environment.” Most importantly, life cycle assessment (LCA) is an internationally accepted and widely used methodology for evaluating the environmental impact of a product, giving reliable and verifiable credentials to sustainable product claims. If you’d like to learn more about how to do a product life cycle assessment, check out the 9 expert tips from our Senior LCA analyst Dr. Karpagam Subramanian.

Interested to find out more on making correct and grounded sustainability claims? Download our free guide to Going Beyond Greenwashing, including an extensive greenwashing checklist, developed exclusively for fashion brands.