H&M promises ‘clearer’ labelling after Dutch regulator rings greenwashing alarm bells

Late last year, the ACM began looking into whether the terms that the retailers were using to describe product categories were easy to understand and backed up with credible evidence. H&M has a ‘conscious’ filter on its website and places the term on tags in stores. Decathlon, meanwhile, uses the term ‘ecodesign’ in a similar way.

The ACM looked into whether customers understood what those terms meant. It also looked at the retailers’ justifications for labelling products as such. In some cases, consumers were provided with no information about why products fit into these categories. In other cases, one fact about one particular aspect of sustainability was mentioned, such as a percentage of organic or recycled material being used.

Ultimately, the ACM concluded that the retailers “should have informed consumers more clearly about the sustainability aspects of their products”. It did not impose any fines, or any legal requirements for the brands to change labels, however.

Instead, H&M and Decathlon have voluntarily agreed to make labels clearer or remove them altogether. The former approach is the most likely.

Additionally, each firm has agreed to make additional charitable donations to projects working to improve the environmental sustainability of the fashion value chain. H&M has pledged €500,000 and, Decathlon, £400,000. The ACA will work with the firms over the next two years to ensure the labels are changed and the donations made.

In the Netherlands, the five guidelines for sustainability claims on consumer-facing goods are services are:

  1. Clarity on the sustainability benefit offered by the product
  2. Substantiated claims, backed up with up-to-date facts
  3. Fair comparisons with other products, services or companies
  4. Honesty and specificity about the company’s sustainability efforts
  5. Ensuring that claims and labels are ‘useful, not confusing’

ACM board member Cateautje Hijmans van den Bergh said: ‘Consumers that wish to make sustainable choices must be able to have confidence in the veracity of the claims that businesses make on their products or websites.”

For H&M, the news comes amid further accusations of greenwashing in the US. A woman named Chelsea Commodore has filed a lawsuit in New York, alleging that H&M’s advertising around the environmental impacts of its products and business are misleading.

But H&M is not the only fashion brand under fire.  A 2021 study from the Changing Markets Foundation found that 60% of the environmental claims of large British and European fashion brands could be classed as “unsubstantiated” and “misleading”.

In the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA)  recently confirmed that it had completed its initial review of marketing and labelling in the fashion sector and that it has chosen Asos, Boohoo and George at Asda as the first brands to face more in-depth investigations. Statements made by the brands will be checked against the Green Claims Code.

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