An American consumer is suing H&M Group for greenwashing, saying its sustainable claims would not be true at all and are therefore misleading. H&M embellished its environmental scores by turning negative points into positive points. Literally.
Media investigation becomes lawsuit
What the British consumer watchdog is investigating at Boohoo and Asos, news site Quartz took up with H&M Group: are the sustainability claims real? Are the new eco-collections and more sustainable products really more environmentally friendly? The answer now leads to a lawsuit filed by a New York consumer.
The customer bought several items from the “conscious choice” collection, the fashion retailer’s allegedly green line that works with recycled materials and uses fewer raw materials. However, this turns out not to be the case for the majority of the items, the conscious shopper discovered in a recent investigation by the American news site.
Striving for openness and transparency
To improve transparency, H&M has been displaying the ‘environmental score’ for (a growing proportion of) its products on its website since May 2021. For each item, consumers were given access to an information sheet where the clothes were scored on a large number of sustainability criteria, such as percentage impact on water consumption, fossil fuels and water pollution.
The percentage was assigned on the basis of the Higg Index, an industry measure established by the sector-wide Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). For example, the information sheet for a blouse showed that 30 % less water was used for this item and 40 % less fossil fuels. The figures came directly from the Higg website and thus seemed to be objectively established.
Half less sustainable instead of more
However, there appeared to be a subtle but substantial flaw in H&M’s website: according to Quartz, the site ignored negative numbers. According to the Higg Index, the same blouse scored – 30 % on water consumption, meaning it actually used 30 % more water. But the term ‘less’ was automatically added on the retailer’s site and the minus sign magically fell away. Of the 600 products with an environmental scorecard on H&M’s British website, more than 100 were found to contain errors. Over half of all the scorecards also claimed that a garment was better for the environment, when in fact it was not more sustainable.
After the investigation, H&M Group admitted that there were technical problems and has since removed the HIGG sheets from its websites. The SAC is also “pausing” the Higg Index programme across the sector to re-evaluate the methodology. The Norwegian Consumer Authority had previously also questioned the system.
Legal authorities intervene
Like New York-based complainant Chelsea Commodore, consumers are increasingly calling companies to account. For this very reason – to show openness and transparency – H&M had added the Higg scores to its website in the first place, but this turns out not to be enough. In the information age, articulate and critical consumers also expect claims to be substantiated. Those who fail to do so are called to account, on social media or, increasingly, legally.
In the United States, an outraged Aldi customer set an important precedent earlier this year. She took the discounter to court because the salmon labelled “Simple. Sustainable. Seafood” did not come from sustainable farms at all. The court in Illinois declared the complaint admissible and followed the consumer’s reasoning. Market authorities around the world are also taking aim at retailers’ sustainability claims. In particular, the British competition watchdog is currently investigating whether Asos and Boohoo are misleading customers with their new, ‘greener’ collections.