Higg How-To Hopes to Get Rid of Greenwashing #538


Dutch and Norwegian authorities have issued joint guidance, based on current European Union law, on how the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) can continue to use the Higg Materials Sustainability Index to make environmental claims without running afoul of greenwashing regulations designed to protect consumers from misleading information.

The impact-scoring platform, better known as the MSI, has been at the center of rulings that deemed it unfit for purpose. Over the summer, the Norwegian Consumer Authority (NCA) declared that Norrøna was “breaking the law” when it touted some of its products as better for the planet based on MSI data. (It warned H&M against doing the same as well.) In September, the ​​Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) told Decathlon and H&M to amend or withdraw from their clothing and websites their respective “Ecodesign” and “Conscious Choice” designations. The criteria for inclusion was ill-defined and any assertions insufficiently substantiated, the agency said, making it difficult for consumers to have confidence in the claims’ veracity. In lieu of sanctions, the brands each made donations of 400,000 euros ($388,000) and 500,000 euros ($485,000) to different sustainable fashion charities.

One problem, the Dutch and Norwegian bodies said in their 11-page document, is that the use of global average data does not “constitute documentation” for a product-specific claim.

In Norrøna’s case, the brand had used Higg MSI data to indicate that its organic cotton T-shirts generated 14 percent less emissions, used 9 percent less fossil fuels, consumed 88 percent less water and produced 47 percent less water pollution than their conventional counterparts. Because the information provided referred to the average environmental attributes of the cotton fiber, not those of the specific finished items, there was insufficient proof that the claimed impact reductions were “true and correct,” the NCA said in its ruling.

“The global average numbers presented to the consumer should be based on representative data,” the ACM and NCA wrote. “This means that if there are significant variations from country to country or region to region in the numbers presented to the consumer, this should be reflected in the data constituting the basis for the global average numbers. For example, if it is likely from a scientific point of view that water usage for organic cotton and/or conventional cotton varies from country to country and/or region to region, the data underlying the averages should reflect this. If not, the data underlying the numbers will not be representative. Presentation of these numbers to consumers may then be misleading.”

The ACM and NCA also urged the SAC, whose roster includes more than 280 members from Amazon to Zara, to put any claims in context. At present, the Higg MSI measures five cradle-to-gate impact categories: global warming potential, nutrient pollution in water, water scarcity, fossil fuel depletion and chemistry. Besides the vagueness of some of the terminology—what does global warming potential mean, for instance?—the numbers, when taken in tandem, still fall short of measuring a material’s environmental impact across its entire life cycle, or cradle to cradle.

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