The news website Quartz asked the same question of H&M as the UK competition authorities did of Boohoo and Asos: is the sustainability information given reliable? Do the new eco-collections and other more sustainable products really deserve these labels? The findings of the investigation by the site’s journalists are now leading to a lawsuit following a complaint by a New York consumer.
The consumer in question bought several items from the “conscious choice” collection, the fashion group’s supposedly sustainable line, with more recycled materials and less raw materials. It turns out, however, that this is not the case for the majority of the items, as the consumer discovered in an investigation recently published by the American news site.
Openness and transparency
In the interests of transparency, since May 2021 H&M has been displaying the ‘environmental score’ (of an increasing proportion) of its items on its website. For each item, consumers have access to an information sheet that gives the garment in question a sustainability score based on several criteria, such as its relative impact on water and fossil fuel consumption or water pollution.
The scores, in percentages, are calculated using the Higg Index, an industry measure established by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). For example, a blouse’s fact sheet showed that it used 30% less water and 40% less fossil fuel to make. The figures were taken directly from the Higg website and therefore appeared to be objective.
Half as sustainable…
Except that H&M’s website had a subtle but significant flaw: the site ignored the negative scores, says Quartz. According to the Higg Index, the blouse in question actually scored -30% on water consumption. Except that the word “minus” was automatically added to the retailer’s website, while the negative sign magically disappeared. This error is said to have occurred on more than 100 of the 600 products with an environmental rating on H&M’s UK website. In addition, more than half of the rating sheets falsely claimed that the garment was better for the environment.
Following the investigation, H&M Group admitted technical problems and removed the HIGG sheets from its websites. The SAC also decided to “pause” the Higg Index programme in order to re-evaluate the methodology. The Norwegian Competition Authority had already questioned the system.
Like New York plaintiff Chelsea Commodore, consumers are increasingly demanding accountability from companies. Although H&M’s motivation for adding the Higg scores to its website was precisely to be open and transparent, such initiatives are clearly not enough. In the information age, mature and critical consumers also expect the information given by brands to be substantiated. When this is not the case, brands are now being called to order, on social media and, increasingly, in court.
Again in the US, an outraged Aldi customer set an important precedent earlier this year. She sued the discounter on the grounds that her salmon labelled ‘Simple. Sustainable. Seafood” did not come from sustainable farms. An Illinois court upheld the complaint and followed the consumer’s reasoning. Competition authorities around the world are currently scrutinising the sustainability information provided by retailers. The UK authority, for example, is currently investigating the new ‘greener’ collections of Asos and Boohoo, two rival brands of H&M.
You can also read RetailDetail’s investigation on 2 August into the UK authorities’ action against Asos and Boohoo on the same subject here