“Sustainable” has become one of fashion’s favorite buzzwords as people inside the industry and out wake up to the startling scope of its environmental strain on the planet. But because there’s no certifying body to decide what’s “sustainable,” or even a clear definition of what the term means, brands can market their products as sustainable without having to back it up.
In Norway, though, it’s not so easy, as H&M is discovering.
The country’s Marketing Control Act outlines practices that are off-limits for marketers, among them making claims that mislead consumers. As Ecotextile reported, the independent government body charged with enforcing these rules and protecting consumers is currently scrutinizing H&M over its Conscious collection, which the company says is made with sustainable materials and methods.
“Our opinion is that H&M are not being clear or specific enough in explaining how the clothes in the Conscious collection and their Conscious shop are more ‘sustainable’ than other products they sell,” said Bente Øverli, deputy director general at Norway’s Forbrukertilsynet, or Consumer Authority, in a statement to Quartz. “Since H&M are not giving the consumer precise information about why these clothes are labelled Conscious, we conclude that consumers are being given the impression that these products are more ‘sustainable’ than they actually are.”
The Consumer Authority says it is currently in talks with H&M. It added that it’s too early to say whether it will proceed with the case. If it determines that a company is in violation of the law, it can impose sanctions or fines, and has the ability to prohibit certain types of marketing.
A spokesperson for H&M said the company has a meeting scheduled with the Consumer Authority, and that it will comply with all Norwegian marketing laws. “We are pleased the Norwegian Consumer Authority shines the light on marketing and communication of sustainable alternatives and we have already established a healthy conversation with them to see how we can be even better at communicating the extensive work we do,” the company said in a statement. “We are transparent in everything we do and have nothing to hide.”
H&M talks about sustainability more than any other fast-fashion label. While it does use materials in its Conscious collection that are supposed to be more sustainable than conventional alternatives, such as textiles made from pineapple-leaf fibers or citrus peels, its low-cost, high-volume business model is arguably at odds with its sustainability goals. Any fashion company pursuing high growth has a sustainability challenge. Luxury giant Kering, owner of labels such as Gucci and Saint Laurent, has worked to upgrade its sustainability, but said its brands’ rapid growth in 2018 offset any improvements they made (paywall).
The Consumer Authority says it believes businesses are becoming more conscious of their environmental impact, and more aware that consumers care. An extensive review (pdf) of five years of consumer-product sales by researchers at New York University’s Stern Center for Sustainable Business found that products marketed as sustainable saw sales grow much faster than products not marketed that way.
“The problem is that businesses—and we would like to underscore that this in no way applies to H&M only, or that H&M in any way is among the worst offenders here—tend to over-sell their products,” Øverli of the Consumer Authority said. One of the government agency’s priorities at the moment, she noted, is marketing based on environmental benefits.