Swedish fast fashion giant H&M has come under indictment for greenwashing.
The plaintiff was American marketing student Chelsea Commodore, who took the case to federal court in New York last July. The subject of the class action lawsuit brought by the plaintiff are the Conscious Collection clothing, created, according to the brand's claims, "with the planet in mind," but in reality, according to what Commodore (and others) says, far from sustainable.
Now developments in the complaint are awaited, but either way, as experts remark, this is a warning that the entire fashion industry would do well to take seriously
Greenwashing and conscious choices
"The goal of H&M's marketing scheme is to market and sell products that capitalize on the growing segment consumers who care about the environment, but H&M does so in a misleading and deceptive way." That, in a nutshell, is the allegation in the complaint filed by Chelsea Commodore last July 22nd in federal court in New York.
A marketing student at SUNY New Paltz University in New York, Commodore recounts that she purchased a piece of clothing from the Swedish brand by paying more than " regular" H&M clothes because it was labeled as "Conscious", that is, environmentally friendly.
The garments in the Conscious Choice line, according to the H&M website, are in fact created "with a little extra consideration for the planet," and each product "contains at least 50 percent more sustainable materials, such as organic cotton or recycled polyester, but many contain a lot more than that." To substantiate its claims, the brand joined the Higg Index, a sustainability index for the textile and fashion industry developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, whose ratings are reported on the H&M website. Or rather, used to be reported, since after Commodore's lawsuit, H&M thought it more prudent to quickly remove the Higg scores they had previously flaunted.
According to the lawsuit, the Higg Index ratings were in fact used deceptively, as shown by an investigation that came out in late June in Quartz. The trick, later downplayed as a "technical error," basically consisted of ignoring the "minus" signs in the index scores: for example, if a dress has a water consumption rating of -20 percent, it means that it consumes 20 percent more water than the average, but H&M reported the opposite, i.e., 20 percent less consumption.
Fake circular economy
Coming to the claims about the use of sustainable materials, Chelsea Commodore points out that several products in the Conscious Choice line contain up to 100 percent polyester, a material that does not biodegrade and disperses microfibers into the environment. And although H&M claims to use polyester recycled from PET bottles, Commodore further notes, this does not mean "closing the loop", since while the bottles could be recycled several times over, converting them into textiles (which, on the contrary, are difficult to recycle) instead only accelerates the path to landfill.
Finally, the clothing take-back and recycling program implemented by the brand is accused of being completely misleading. And here all it takes is a little common sense to do the math. Currently, only 1 percent of materials used for clothing are recycled to make more clothes. H&M is the second largest company in the world by sales volume in the fashion industry (the first is Zara) and, according to an estimate reported by Quartz, produces 3 billion garments a year. Although, as Commodore's complaint rightly reports, there are solutions for recycling textiles, they are still far from scalable for these production volumes.
In short, H&M's appeal to its customers to bring their discarded clothes back to the store to be recycled ultimately translates into further encouragement to buy new ones, in defiance of what is the first and most important principle of the true circular economy: extending the useful life of products to consume less of them.
A wake-up call for Fast Fashion
The lawsuit filed against H&M is part of a recent string of complaints and reports of greenwashing: an unmistakable sign of (consumers') patience running out, but also of a marketing trend now out of control.
This passage from Chelsea Commodore's complaint says it well: "Despite its position as a fast-fashion giant, H&M has created an extensive marketing scheme to greenwash its products, in order to represent them as environmentally-friendly when they are not." In short, although there is nothing more distant from sustainability than the concept of fast fashion, the fast fashion giants still try, in a titanic effort to deny reality that would be almost admirable if it were not absolutely detrimental.
All that remains now is to see how the legal process undertaken by the New York student will end. The federal court might decide to grant her "class action" claim, and then the issue would get ugly.
As it is, however, it's already a tough nut to crack for H&M and a wake-up call for the entire fashion industry, which, as legal experts interviewed by industry magazine Apparel Insider warn, should be more cautious about flaunting their (alleged) sustainability as a marketing strategy.
Image: Sara Kurfess (Unsplash)