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Can the fashion industry really become more sustainable?

Can a fashion collection be marketed as “cherishing waste” yet only contain a fraction of recycled materials? Currently, yes it can. Is it greenwashing? The jury is out. But the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) wants to abolish gray areas, pledging to name and shame fashion retailers that make false or misleading claims about their environmental credentials.

In March, the CMA said it would publicly list fashion’s worst greenwashing offenders, after publishing a report that found 40% of green claims made online could be misleading and subsequently launching its Green Claims Code last year. The code is a checklist of 13 requirements that brands must meet when making a green claim, to comply with consumer protection law.

The Cherish Waste collection in question was launched by H&M last month and criticized for greenwashing by anti fast-fashion campaigners, including Venetia La Manna, who cited a pair of denim-print joggers made from 100% cotton – the garment’s shell is made from 50 % recycled cotton.

“This is worthy of naming and shaming,” agrees Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution. “I welcome the CMA’s review but I don’t welcome steps that take years to turn into action. And simply stopping a brand from saying something isn’t the same as being granular and accurate [about their supply chain].”

Capsule collections such as Cherish Waste often come under fire for representing a small proportion of an otherwise large clothing offering – H&M produces 3 billion garments each year. Globally, the equivalent to a rubbish truck full of clothes ends up in landfill sites every second.

Some believe that smaller ranges could lead to systemic change if the right parameters are applied. Amy Powney, creative director of Mother of Pearl, points to her recent clothing and homeware collections with John Lewis.

“The team wanted to tap into the sustainable knowledge I had,” she explains. “But it is vital that these collections lead to evolutionary change in the company as a whole, not just as a marketing one-off.”

Ensuring sustainability is about more than marketing

Fabrics are one of the most common entry points for retailers looking to change their business models. Powney highlights Tencel as a fabric that brands should explore for its cellulose fiber of botanic origin, which comes from sustainable forestry.

“For us, our most commonly used material is cotton – used in 60% of our product ranges – so we started there,” says Nick Stevenson, trading director at Fat Face. “We used three certification bodies to help us – Better Cotton Initiative, Organic Content Standard and the Global Organic Textile Standard and we’re now moving on to our other materials.”

But fabrics represent only one part of fashion’s notoriously complex supply chains, sections of which are often untraceable by the brands themselves.

“I’d like to see ‘transparency’ become the main vocabulary in an industry where brands are open and honest, where they give real insight into the progress they have made and where they want to improve,” says Powney. “Our website is set up so that you can see the ‘sustainable attributes’ of each piece. We are transparent.”

I barely even know what the word ‘sustainable’ means anymore.

If “sustainable” was the original buzzword – and one coming under scrutiny by the CMA – “transparency” is already vying to replace it. When approached for comment, H&M issued a statement: “At H&M Group, we strive to act in accordance with local regulation and in cooperation with the relevant bodies. We welcome initiatives that contribute to an open discussion regarding the importance of transparency in the fashion industry.”

The CMA will have its work cut out to ensure “transparency” – alongside emerging terms such as purposeful, responsible and regenerative – are not co-opted for greenwashing gains. As Stella McCartney said: “I barely even know what the word ‘sustainable’ means anymore.”

But can the CMA’s Green Claim Codes hold any business to account without legislation to support it? De Castro isn’t convinced. “Brands like H&M are used to being named and shamed, so nothing will be effective unless it comes with industry regulation to ensure brands tell the truth,” she says, adding that disclosing information such as how much garment workers are paid is crucial to a transparent supply chain.

Legislating to make fashion greener

There is legislative hope on the horizon. Last month, the government published its response to reforming competition and consumer policy, including the intention to give the CMA the power to enforce legislation directly. The CMA would be able to impose a penalty of up to 10% of global annual turnover to brands that breach such laws.

“It would be a game changer because it would allow the CMA to act fairly quickly,” says Duncan Reed, partner at law firm TLT. “The current regime for punishing organizations who mislead consumers is quite clunky and involves bringing proceedings through the criminal courts. This is different.”

Reed believes we will see some casualties, not least because the CMA wants to be seen as a “world-leading regulator” post Brexit. The European Securities and Markets Authority published its own road map, in which it identified tackling greenwashing as a priority.

“The CMA will seek to exercise [its powers],” he says, cautioning retailers who can’t trace every part of their supply chains. “They’ll need to tighten up the indemnities and warranties within their supply chains.”

Businesses can – and many will – wait for reviews and legislation, which are undoubtedly necessary. But time isn’t on our side when it comes to the climate emergency. Revolutionary brands have shown what is possible, without the threats from governing bodies. Businesses must be accountable for their actions; they have an obligation to know and show the people and resources behind their collections without sugar-coating.

“I’ve journeyed, and continue to journey, to find the best factories, suppliers and farmers who care about the planet and its inhabitants,” says Powney. “We’re a small brand with limited means. If we can do it, anyone can.”


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