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WATCH: H&M being sued for misleading sustainability marketing

A new false advertising lawsuit asserts that H&M is allegedly “taking advantage of consumers’ interest” in sustainability by wrongfully marketing certain products as environmentally friendly.

The Fashion Law published on July 28th this year that a proposed class action complaint, filed in a New York federal court on July 22, detailed plaintiff Chelsea Commodore’s claims of blatant attempts by H&M to target the growing segment of eco-conscious consumers who are willing to pay more for “sustainably-made” fashion.

Commodore claims that the Swedish fashion company prominently incorporated “’environmental scorecards’ for its products called ‘Sustainability Profiles’” into the labelling, packaging, and marketing materials for hundreds of its offerings, only to remove them after being called out for using “falsified information that did not comport with the underlying data.”

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In the newly-filed complaint, Commodore alleges that “despite its position as a fast-fashion giant, H&M has created an extensive marketing scheme to ‘greenwash’ its products” in order to present them “as environmentally-friendly when they are not.”

Part of this overarching effort comes in the form of its “misleading” environmental scorecards, which are prominently displayed on “green hang tags, in-store signage, and online marketing.”

One sustainability profile that was marketed by H&M, for example, “claimed that a dress was made with 20% less water on average,” when an independent investigation by news outlet Quartz revealed that the dress “was actually made with 20% more water.”

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Commodore provided another example which showed that H&M presented “a particular product as being produced with 30% less water” when the Higg website, which is where H&M procured such information, “showed that the item was ‘actually made with 31% more water, making it worse than conventional materials.”

Against this background, Commodore contends that “a majority” of the products that H&M markets as being sustainably made are “no more sustainable than items in its original product line, which is also not sustainable. “

By doing so, the company impaired the judgment of consumers, “who pay a price premium in the belief that they are buying truly sustainable and environmentally friendly clothing.”

In addition to its allegedly problematic Sustainability Profiles, Commodore claims that “H&M makes various other misrepresentations concerning the purportedly sustainable nature of its products,” including that its products are “‘conscious,’ a ‘conscious choice,’ a ‘shortcut to sustainable choices,’ made from ‘sustainable materials,’ ‘close the loop,’ and that H&M will prevent its textiles ‘from going to landfill’ through its recycling program.”

While it may be challenging for fashion companies to understand boundaries when communicating about sustainability and impact, it should not absolve them of the responsibility to communicate about sustainability or impact honestly and effectively.

The nonlinear nature of sustainability, the limited number of sustainability communication experts in the space, the lack of any clear standards or regulations, and the fear of being called out does create a challenging dynamic to navigate.

Lauren Daum, Director of Corporate Communications and Sustainability at BPCM, an LA-based communications agency told the Sustainable Fashion Forum. that “from a marketing perspective, it’s crucial that marketing and communications teams know how to speak the same language as the sustainability teams, understanding the context and importance of efforts to ensure nuance is captured and to avoid mistranslation.”

The Fashion Law noted that H&M declined to comment about the ongoing case.

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