An alliance of major fashion brands has announced it is suspending its use of a tool to measure the durability of clothing after critics branded it greenwashing.
Until this week, shoppers could go to H&Ms website and check the environmental impact of 655 of its clothes, as assessed by the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI), a suite of tools launched l year by a global non-profit alliance, the Sustainable Clothing Coalition (SAC).
For example, a pair of cotton shorts was described as using 88% less [water] than conventional materials; its impact on global warming was 14% lower than that of conventional materials.
However, SAC announced it was suspending its product labeling tool after the Norwegian Consumer Authority (NCA) warned H&M Group two weeks ago against using the Higg index to support its environmental claims. He added that if he still used this marketing on September 1, he would risk economic sanctions.
Although Norway’s consumer watchdog did not investigate H&M’s claims, it did with those of a Norwegian outdoor brand, Norrna (which also used the Higg Index on its site website). This concluded that the data was misleading to consumers and that the claims were unsubstantiated.
Although H&M and Norrna were the first brands to incorporate the rating system on their product pages, SAC also counts Nike, Primark, Walmart, Boohoo, Amazon and Tommy Hilfiger among its 250 members.
Fashion sustainability campaigners are rejoicing after SAC’s announcement, complaining about its methodology which has been assessing a product’s life cycle since last spring, describing it as greenwashing.
If you think of a life cycle assessment as a clock face, the Higg MSI only considers noon to 3 p.m. only a very selective part of the impact, said Philippa Grogan of fashion sustainability consultancy Eco-Age. To represent how durable a product is, we need the rating to go from midnight to midnight, so not just cradle to store, but cradle to grave.
For example, there is no information on whether a garment releases microplastics or is biodegradable. The Higg SMI does not allow consumers to make informed decisions, Grogan added. This derails all the efforts of everyone involved.
This is classic greenwashing, they trick consumers by attaching this wildly inaccurate data to clothing and footwear.
Critics also lament its use of outdated or unrepresentative research: Brands can simply upload their own data, Grogan said. They can add data from a small cotton farm that uses best practices, not data from a large farm.
Earlier this month, the New York Times gave voice to more critics who claimed that SAC used research funded by the synthetics industry, allowing brands to claim that man-made fibers are more sustainable than natural fibers.
Speaking to the Guardian, SAC CEO Amina Razvi said: We are constantly engaging with reviewers and stakeholders on the issues they are having with the tools. This is why our tools are constantly evolving, based on feedback and the best available scientific data. She asserted that all lifecycle assessment data is vetted, verified and validated, but admitted that outdated data was an industry issue and needed improvement.
During his break, Razvi said the SAC will meet with the NCA to clarify any misunderstandings or misconceptions about methodology and understand how our companies can make credible, consumer-facing claims. She also said the SAC would conduct an independent, third-party review of the data and methodology.
It needs to make everything open source and stop working behind closed doors, Grogan said, on how the Higg Index should work.
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