Photo illustration: The Cut; Photo: Getty Images
Last month, a lawsuit was filed against Swedish fast fashion giant H&M in New York federal court, accusing it of “greenwashing,” or engaging in false advertising about the sustainability of its clothing. The lawsuit was brought by Chelsea Commodore, a SUNY New Paltz marketing student who alleged she overpaid for a fashion item marketed as “conscious” that wasn’t. In fact, she claims, several pieces of the brand’s Conscious Collection products were advertised as using less water to produce when in fact they use more. H&M claims the deviation was the result of technical problems.
This trial could be a watershed (sorry) moment for fashion. Sustainability as a marketing tactic may be extinct. And maybe it should?
H&M is just one example of many fashion companies that profit from claiming that certain garments are sustainable. And the lawsuit is the culmination of a decade of fierce global debate. Sure, H&M is consistently top-ranked when it comes to transparency, and it’s more discerning than most when it comes to documenting in hard numbers its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. But a survey by Quartz in June showed that their new environmental scorecard for products was misleading. This is happening globally. In the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority is investigating ASOS and Boohoo for greenwashing over their vague claims.
Although the lawsuit has to do with the price of the piece, the allegations in the lawsuit are the biggest hit of all the criticism of the global fashion industry and its broken promises of reform. They include using vague language like “closing the loop” and “a conscious choice”, calling products “sustainable” even though they use fossil fuel-based synthetics that remove plastic microfibers, and taking back old clothes for recycling just to get customers to buy more, and – most importantly for this suit – exploit our collective climate guilt to demand more for clothes of the same quality.
In reality, the big brands have accomplished very little. The fashion industry has not meaningfully reduced its carbon footprint (it hasn’t even measured it). Textile-to-textile recycling hardly exists, and what the industry calls “recycling” is mostly downcycling into lower-value products and shipping clothing around the world to low-income countries, where a large portion of it ends up in landfill. Much of the “certified organic” cotton is fake, and fossil fuel-based textiles continue to dominate.
The problem with the lawsuit stems from a larger question the fashion industry is not ready to answer: What exactly makes a piece of fashion sustainable?
More than a decade ago, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition—whose membership now includes nearly 150 retailers, from Amazon to Reformation, as well as factories and nonprofits—was established to answer that question. One of SAC’s goals was to come up with a way to measure the efficacy of a product, and then put it on a label for customers so we could make better choices.
It turns out to be a very complicated question to answer. For even the simplest products – such as a cotton T-shirt – the environmental impacts include growing and harvesting cotton; the chemicals used to scour, bleach, dye and finish it, and whether the dye house treats the waste water; the electricity and coal boilers at the factories; and transporting it across the globe. Multiply that by a dozen materials for a more complicated product and again by 25,000 – for the number of products H&M puts on its website a year – and you get an idea of the scale of data collection required.
So SAC came up with the Higg Index, a suite of tools that collects data on the fashion industry’s supply chain and rates it for sustainability. While Higgs’ offering includes a module that collects data from and rates factories, the Material Sustainability Index has been the most controversial. It offers scorecards that show average how much water use, water pollution, fossil fuel use, chemical use and greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to all kinds of materials from leather to linen to PVC. (H&M chose to use this average global calculation to underpin the environmental scorecard pilot project.)
But there are different opinions about what is actual sustainable. For example, PETA has used the scorecards to argue that synthetics are more sustainable than animal products, which wool and leather trade groups didn’t like.
Defenders of natural materials say the measurements don’t include things like synthetic microfibers, the length of time synthetic materials take to completely break down (200 years, maybe?), or the fact that cheap polyester is easily produced from oil. ever-increasing amount of throwaway fashion. The second criticism of the organization is that any global average for natural materials, which do not come from standardized factories but from completely different farms around the world, will be inaccurate and misleading.
The organization prefers that interest groups stop using it to compare totally different fibers. It is said that designers should use whatever material they want – for the look, feel and performance – and only upgrade to a more sustainable organic or recycled version.
“If you get someone to buy a product based on those claims, that’s false advertising,” says Maxine Bédat, an author, fashion sustainability expert and co-creator of New York State’s proposed Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act. She says that the Higgs material average should have been used only as a broad starting point, not as a marketing claim for a specific product.
Many do not believe that a brand with H&M’s cheap and fast business model can ever be sustainable no matter how much of the cotton is organic and recycled. Higgs CEO Jason Kibbey hits back at this notion. “If you just try to make it exclusive, so that cute little boutique brands with cool young founders are the only ones that are sustainable, you’re not moving the needle,” he says.
Higg was created during a very different era of “conscious capitalism”, when we thought that if we just educated consumers, they would vote with their dollars for a better world. Given how effective the calorie counts on the menus were (LOL), there’s not much reason to believe this. In fact, despite survey after survey where consumers say they would pay more for sustainable fashion, we rarely do. This lawsuit may just be the death knell for the acclaimed “consumer education” theory of change.
Now, as the West Coast burns, the Loire River dries up, Kentucky drowns, and plastic forms part of the geological record, both Higg and H&M find themselves caught in a thorny thicket of anger and despair about whether we can ever repair the damage of overconsumption have created on our planet.
“No, brands shouldn’t do that,” Bédat says of displaying fake stats on product pages. “And if it takes a lawsuit for them to stop doing it, then that’s a powerful way to do it.” But, she points out, the practice of measuring carbon footprints for products is a completely new field. She and Kibbey share a concern that this lawsuit could halt what little progress the fashion industry has made toward measuring and reducing its environmental impact. “I think we need to … highlight the things that need to change and change them,” she says. “But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”