Fast-fashion giant H&M is being accused of greenwashing and engaging in false advertising about the sustainability of its clothing.
As sustainable fashion gains traction we should watch out for ‘brand-wagoning’ and ‘greenwashing’.
Brand-wagoning is the practice of a brand getting a piece of the action by riding the tails of a popular initiative – say, sustainable fashion. Brand-wagoning is not a real word – I just made it up, so sue me. H&M, the Swedish far from sustainable fashion giant, is already being sued on the basis of accusations of greenwashing and engaging in false advertising about the sustainability of its clothing. A lawsuit filed against the company in New York federal court alleged that H&M marketed its Conscious Collection products as using less water to manufacture when they actually use more. The lawsuit, brought forward by a marketing student, Chelsea Commodore, claimed that she had overpaid for a fashion piece marketed as conscious that was not truly sustainable.
H&M is not the only fashion company that claims certain pieces of clothing are sustainable while profiting from it. The fashion industry has been in a decade-long global debate over sustainability, with sustainability as a marketing tactic facing the threat of extinction. The problem lies in answering the question of what actually makes a piece of fashion sustainable.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, established over a decade ago, aims to measure the impacts of a product and put that on a label for shoppers. However, this has turned out to be a complicated question to answer. Even for the simplest products like a cotton t-shirt, environmental impacts include the growth and harvesting of cotton, the chemicals used to scour, bleach, dye, and finish it, the electricity and coal-fired boilers at the factories, and the transportation of it all over the globe. For more complicated products with a dozen materials, this becomes an even bigger challenge.
The lawsuit filed against H&M includes all the criticisms of the global fashion industry and its broken promises to reform. Using vague language and calling products sustainable even though they use fossil-fuel-based synthetics that shed plastic microfibers, taking back old clothes for recycling only to induce customers to buy more, and exploiting our collective climate guilt to charge us more for the same-quality clothes are all issues that need to be addressed.
The fashion industry has not meaningfully reduced its carbon footprint, and textile-to-textile recycling barely exists. What the industry calls recycling is mostly downcycling to lower-value products and shipping clothing around the world to low-income countries, where a large portion of it ends up in the landfill. Furthermore, a lot of the certified organic cotton is fake, and fossil-fuel-based textiles continue to dominate.
In conclusion, the fashion industry needs to address the issue of sustainability and provide a clear definition of what makes a piece of fashion sustainable. This will require a significant effort to measure the environmental impacts of each product and provide transparency to the consumers. As consumers, we should demand transparency and hold the fashion industry accountable for their actions.