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What the new greenwashing guidelines could mean for fashion brands

For too long, fashion brands seeking sustainability kudos have hidden behind vague statements and empty promises. But, says Sophie Benson, all that is about to change

Thursday 30 September 2021 20:50 BST
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

From the start of next year fashion brands face finding themselves in breach of the law if they engage in greenwashing.

Following its early 2021 findings that 40 per cent of green claims made online could be misleading consumers, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has published the “Green Claims Code”. Based upon existing consumer protection legislation, and applicable to “advertisements, product labelling and packaging or other accompanying information… even product names” the Code is designed to help businesses comply with the law and reduce the risk of misleading shoppers.

Brands now have a so-called bedding-in period until 2022, upon which time the CMA will carry out a full review of misleading claims made both on and offline. While any products and services carrying green claims will be affected, the CMA is to prioritise the industries which consumers are most concerned about, and the fashion and textiles industry sits at the top of the list.

The Code may be formed around the 2008 Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations, but no specific guidelines pertaining to green claims have existed until now. That’s why shoppers are treated to window displays dedicated to “sustainable collections”, or Instagram posts about fashion brands being “earth-friendly”, “responsible”, or “better for the planet” with very little information or proof to back those claims up.

“Stakeholder demand has ensured that there is a checklist of things that organisations must demonstrate that they are working towards if they are to be deemed sustainable, but so many are undermining this by using misleading terminology and imagery in what they present to the public,” says Tiffany Kelly, co-founder of retail platform Beyond Bamboo.

Until fashion brands are actively measuring and disclosing their impacts in a reliable and transparent way, they must be held accountable for any communications about sustainability

Ruth MacGilp, Communications and Content Manager at Fashion Revolution

A quick sweep of UK retailer websites reveals that examples of this aren’t hard to find. “Making sure [cotton] is sourced in a more environmentally sustainable way”; “…ensuring 100% of products and packaging are made from more sustainable or recycled materials”; and “…we’re endeavouring to make a positive change by using materials that are more sustainably sourced,” were among the statements made by prominent British brands to prove their commitment to environmentally friendly business practices.

Such statements seem impressive on the surface, but they leave questions unanswered. How are they making sure it’s sustainably sourced? What do they mean by sustainably sourced? What exactly counts as a more sustainable material?

“Until fashion brands are actively measuring and disclosing their impacts in a reliable and transparent way, they must be held accountable for any communications about sustainability,” says Ruth MacGilp, Communications and Content Manager at Fashion Revolution. “We need legislation that upholds efforts like these to prevent greenwashing… with penalties for unsubstantiated claims by big brands.”

“For consumers to have the best chance of knowing the clothes they buy align with their values, we need to be confident that companies are telling the truth about their products and processes," MacGilp continues. And thanks to the new guidelines, knowing what’s true and what’s greenwashing should be much easier.

The six principles of the Green Claims Code are: claims must be truthful and accurate, claims must be clear and unambiguous, claims must not omit or hide important relevant information, comparisons must be fair and meaningful, claims must consider the full life cycle of the product or service, and claims must be substantiated.

Greenwashing erodes consumer trust and means that genuinely sustainable brands struggle to be heard

Tiffany Kelly, co-founder of retail platform Beyond Bamboo.

They may sound like baseline expectations, but they stand to tear apart the way brands are currently talking about sustainability. Claims such as “we are working to become more sustainable” will no longer cut the mustard unless they are substantiated with evidence of exactly how that will happen. Using vague descriptions such as “organic cotton jeans” will no longer do either. Brands will be expected to make clear exactly what percentage of the fibre is organic cotton, and what the make-up of the rest of the fabric is.

Claims of a product being “greener” than an unnamed comparison are out, and the use of broad terms such as “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” are also up for scrutiny as the CMA says they are “likely to be seen as suggesting that a product, service, process, brand or business as a whole has a positive environmental impact.” And if a business can’t prove that’s the case, they risk enforcement from bodies including the CMA and the ASA that may involve court proceedings and paying redress to affected consumers.

Until now, brands have been able to use a single eco-friendly collection or the presence of recycled materials within a small percentage of their products as a shroud, drawing attention away from overproduction, fossil fuel fabrics and rampant waste. They’ve been able to leverage tokenistic efforts as proof they’re sustainable from top-to-bottom. But the newly laid out expectations for evidence-based claims, clear language, meaningful comparisons, and full life cycle considerations will expose which brands are really doing the work and which are merely greenwashing as a PR exercise.

“Greenwashing erodes consumer trust and means that genuinely sustainable brands struggle to be heard,” says Kelly. “We need to make conscious consumerism as easy and authentic as possible for our customers. They need to be able to trust that what we say is true.”

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