H&M Is Being Sued for Greenwashing. What Does That Mean For Fashion?

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Last month, a lawsuit was filed against Swedish fast-fashion giant H&M in New York federal court, accusing it of it “greenwashing,” or engaging in false advertising about the sustainability of its clothing. The lawsuit was brought forward by Chelsea Commodore, a SUNY New Paltz marketing student who alleged she had overpaid for a fashion piece marketed as “conscious” that really … wasn’t. In fact, she claims, several pieces of the brand’s Conscious Collection products were advertised as using less water to manufacture when they actually use more. H&M claims the discrepancy was the result of technical issues.

This lawsuit could be a watershed (sorry) moment for fashion. Sustainability as a marketing tactic could go extinct. And maybe it should?

H&M is just one example of many fashion companies that profit from claiming that certain pieces of clothing are sustainable. And the lawsuit is the culmination of a decade of fierce global debate. Sure, H&M is consistently top ranked when it comes to transparency, and it’s more fastidious than most about documenting in hard numbers its efforts at reducing its climate footprint. But a June investigation by Quartz showed that its new environmental scorecards for products were misleading. This is happening globally. In the U.K., the Competition and Markets Authority is investigating ASOS and Boohoo for greenwashing because of their vague claims.

Although the lawsuit has to do with the price of the piece, the accusations in the suit read like a greatest hits of all the criticisms of the global fashion industry and its broken promises to reform. They include using vague language like “close the loop” and “a conscious choice,” 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 — most important for this suit — exploiting our collective climate guilt to charge us more for same-quality clothes.

In reality, the big brands have accomplished very little. The fashion industry has not meaningfully reduced its carbon footprint (it hasn’t even really measured it). Textile-to-textile recycling barely exists, and 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. A lot of the “certified organic” cotton is fake, and fossil-fuel-based textiles continue to dominate.

The problem with the lawsuit stems from a larger question the fashion industry is not ready to answer: What actually makes a piece of fashion sustainable?

More than a decade ago, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition — whose membership now includes almost 150 retailers, from Amazon to Reformation, as well as factories and nonprofits — was established to answer that question. One of the SAC’s goals was to come up with a way to measure the impacts of a product, then put that on a label for shoppers so we could make better choices.

It turns out to be a very complicated question to answer. For even the simplest products — a cotton T-shirt, for example — environmental impacts include the growth and harvesting of cotton; the chemicals used to scour, bleach, dye it, and finish it, and whether the dye house treats its wastewater; the electricity and coal-fired boilers at the factories; and the transportation of it all over the globe. Multiply that by a dozen materials for a more complicated product and again by 25,000 — for the number of products H&M puts up on its website a year — and you get an idea of the scale of data collection required.

So the SAC came up with the Higg Index, a suite of tools that collects data on the fashion industry’s supply chain and rates it for sustainability. While Higg’s offerings include a module that collects data from and rates factories, its Material Sustainability Index has been the most controversial. It offers scorecards that show on average how much water use, water pollution, fossil-fuel use, chemical use, and greenhouse-gas emissions can be attributed to all sorts of materials from leather to linen to PVC. (H&M chose to use this average global metric to undergird its pilot project of environmental scorecards.)

But there are differing opinions on what is actually sustainable. For example, PETA has used the scorecards to say that synthetics are more sustainable than animal products, which wool and leather trade groups did not like.

Defenders of natural materials say the measurements don’t include things such as synthetic microfibers, the length it takes synthetic materials to completely biodegrade (200 years, maybe?), or the fact that the ease of producing cheap polyester from oil has contributed to the ever-rising amount of throwaway fashion. The other criticism levied against the organization is that any global average for natural materials, which come not from standardized factories but from wildly different farms all over the world, will be inaccurate and misleading.

The organization would prefer that interest groups stop using it to compare totally different fibers. It’s said designers should use whatever material they want — for the look, hand-feel, and performance — and just upgrade to a more sustainable organic or recycled version.

“If you’re inducing somebody to buy a product based on those claims, that’s false advertising,” says Maxine Bédat, an author, fashion-sustainability expert, and co-creator of New York State’s proposed Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act. She says Higg’s material averages should have been used just as a broad starting point, not as a marketing claim on a specific product.

Many people don’t think a brand with H&M’s cheap-and-fast business model can ever be sustainable no matter how much of its cotton is organic and recycled. Higg’s CEO, Jason Kibbey, hits back at this notion. “If you just try to make it exclusive, so that cute little boutique-y brands with cool young founders are the only ones that are sustainable, you’re not moving the needle,” he says.

Higg was created during an entirely different era of “conscious capitalism,” when we thought if we just educated consumers, then they would vote with their dollars for a better world. Given how effective calorie counts on menus were (LOL), there is not much reason to have faith on this. In fact, despite survey after survey in which consumers say they would pay more for sustainable fashion, we rarely do. This lawsuit just might be the death knell for the vaunted “consumer education” theory of change.

Now, as the West Coast burns, the Loire River dries up, Kentucky drowns, and plastic forms part of the geologic record, Higg and H&M both find themselves trapped in a thorny thicket of anger and despair about whether we can ever repair the damage that overconsumption has wrought on our planet.

“No, brands should not be doing that,” Bédat says of showing false stats on product pages. “And if it takes a lawsuit for them to stop doing that, then that’s a powerful way to do it.” But, she points out, the practice of measuring carbon footprints for products is a brand-spankin’ new field. She and Kibbey share a concern that this lawsuit could halt what little progress the fashion industry has made toward measuring and reducing its environmental impacts. “I think we have to … highlight the things that need to change and change them,” she says. “But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

H&M Is Being Sued for Greenwashing. Why?