The Competition Authority (CMA) in the UK has established a code that fashion companies must comply with before claiming to be, for example, eco-friendly, sustainable, green or having a positive environmental impact. If a company fails to comply, the CMA and other regulatory bodies such as Trading Standards Services could take legal action. In addition, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) could also take companies to court if such claims are made in advertising. "If your statement is found to be in breach of consumer protection law, you may be forced to make changes to it or make a compensation payment to consumers who may have been harmed by the breach. It is therefore recommended that you seek independent legal advice," the CMA states. Furthermore, if a company says its product is "sustainable", it must be sustainable throughout the product's life cycle. The most relevant aspect of the regulation is that, before making such a declaration, companies must "understand how their product, brand or business has an impact on the environment throughout its life cycle," the CMA specifies. This includes stages where the product is not in the hands of the distributor, such as manufacturing or in its post-consumer stage. To prove whether a claim is correct, companies must answer affirmatively to a list of twelve statements. First, that the claim is accurate and understandable by all; that there is recent and credible evidence to show that it is true; and that it does not contain partially incorrect information. It must also, says the CMA, "tell the whole story of a product or service" or refer to only part of it, without giving rise to misunderstandings about the total environmental impact that product may have. In this sense, if the company makes general claims such as eco-friendly, green or sustainable, these should reflect the entire life cycle of the brand, product or service to which they refer and be substantiated with evidence. What is Greenwashing? Thanks to fast fashion, the industry is the planet’s second-biggest polluter. Causing devastating effects to the environment, such as excessive use of water, high CO² emissions, and chemical pollution, fast fashion is putting pressure on brands to take a sustainable stance for their businesses. There’s currently a huge market for sustainable products, with 46% of consumers stating that helping the environment is important to them. As these eco-conscious consumers increasingly search for green alternatives, many fashion brands are partaking in greenwashing. This refers to fashion companies claiming that their products are made sustainably and ethically when in reality these are empty claims.
How is it Spotted? Many fashion brands rely on vague and non-specific language to describe their sustainability goals. A common tactic is the use of impressive-sounding initiatives such as collections that are dedicated to “sustainability”, but then without going into too much detail about how the brand intends to achieve such goals. When greenwashing, brands will often use generic language to describe their sustainable collections and objectives, without showing the stats to back this up or going into terminology surrounding the discussion of sustainability. When outlining its sustainable claims, a brand will avoid going into detail about its collections and will use generic nature shots of stock images to transmit an image of being eco-conscious. A clear example of this is H&M, the worldwide renowned fast-fashion company. H&M has claimed that it’ll make 100% of its garments using only recycled or organic materials by the year 2030. With their clothes being made “sustainably” currently at 20%, this seems like an extremely difficult objective to reach.
Brands that solely promote minimal and recyclable packaging without addressing textile waste are ones to watch out for. The biggest source of waste in the fashion industry is the excessive amount of clothes being produced. A clear example of this is Asos, a world leader in fashion eCommerce. The company has modified its signature black and white mailer bags and reduced their thickness, with very few of its products having any sustainable characteristics. Another problem area is minimum wages for workers. Just because a company states that its workers are earning above minimum wage, doesn’t mean that it necessarily cares about their well-being. In large production facilities, the norm is that employees are overworked, poorly treated and their health is put at risk. The Consequences for Breaching the Legislation? Companies may be required to refund the customer if their claims are proven to be false. They must also explain and label information about durability or how to dispose of a product after use, they cannot exaggerate or use aspects that are required by law as environmental benefits. The UK is one of the European countries that has been most active in regulating to curb the environmental impact of fashion, particularly fast fashion. The country, home to fast-fashion retail giants such as Boohoo, has measures on the table such as legislating to encourage the recycling of fabrics, supporting companies with a sustainable business model or promoting relocation.