Norway challenges H&M on its sustainability claims

H&M storefront
CC BY 3.0 Usien

The Norwegian Consumer Authority thinks the fast fashion company is misleading shoppers with its so-called Conscious Collection.

H&M has hit an amusing roadblock in its ever-expanding fast fashion empire. The Norwegian Consumer Authority (CA), which is tasked with enforcing rules that prevent companies from making false claims, says H&M's Conscious Collection is an example of "illegal marketing."

According to Ecotextile, the "collection’s sustainability credentials breach Norwegian marketing laws" by using symbols, statements and color to mislead buyers. CA's deputy director general Bente Øverli told Quartz,

"Our opinion is that H&M are not being clear or specific enough in explaining how the clothes in the Conscious collection and their Conscious shop are more ‘sustainable’ than other products they sell. Since H&M are not giving the consumer precise information about why these clothes are labelled Conscious, we conclude that consumers are being given the impression that these products are more ‘sustainable’ than they actually are."

It doesn't take much to pick up on the lack of information. For anyone familiar with sustainable fashion, the brief two-paragraph explanation of the Conscious Collection from H&M's website is a joke, a prime example of greenwashing – but why are we surprised to get that from a company that dominates the fast fashion world? It reads:

"Our Conscious products contain at least 50% recycled materials, organic materials or TENCEL TM Lyocell material – in fact many contain 100%. Due to technological limitations to ensure product quality and durability there is one exception – the maximum share of recycled cotton we can currently use in a garment is 20%. We are, however, working with new innovations to increase this share as soon possible."

There's no information about what's being recycled, where it's happening, or how the development of further recycled content is going.

In the meantime, the Consumer Authority is in talks with H&M. Quartz reports that it's too early to say whether or not the case will proceed, but if the company is found to be in violation of the law, it could be slapped with fines or sanctions, with prohibitions on certain kinds of marketing.

This turn of events is ironic because, of all the fast fashion brands, H&M probably talks about sustainability the most. It has worked hard to position itself as a leader; and yet, its entire business model is at odds with sustainability, which is defined as "the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance."

The fast fashion industry churns out more than 1 billion pieces of new clothing per year, often made shoddily of polyester and other plastic-based materials and designed to last only a few wears. These aren't worth the cost and effort of repair, are highly trendy for a fleeting season, and difficult to recycle because of blended materials in the fabric. It is an industry that, despite proclaimed efforts to clean up its act, simply cannot exist in the form it currently does if there's any hope of reducing environmental impact.

That's why it is refreshing to see an organization like the Norwegian Consumer Authority crack down on H&M. It's setting the bar higher, refusing to accept empty claims. As told to Quartz, CA's current priority is scrutinizing environmental claims. In Øverli's words,

"The problem is that businesses — and we would like to underscore that this in no way applies to H&M only, or that H&M in any way is among the worst offenders here — tend to over-sell their products."

Norway challenges H&M on its sustainability claims
The Norwegian Consumer Authority thinks the fast fashion company is misleading shoppers with its so-called Conscious Collection.

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