Greenwashing claims cause fashion brands to pause sustainable Higg Index tool.

H&M LOGO

Fast-fashion brand H&M has halted the usage of merchandise cataloguing tool, The Higg Materials Sustainability Index after claims of greenwashing.

Up until last week, shoppers could browse H&M’s website to investigate the sustainability of over 600 garments, all rated by the Higg Materials Sustainability Index. Launched in 2019 by non-profit alliance, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). This index keeps measure of the environmental impacts of materials across apparel.

These claims arose from the Norwegian Consumer Authority (NCA) after warning H&M a few weeks ago against using the Higg Index to support its green declarations. Threatening H&M with economic sanctions if this was not altered by September 1st.  After reports were made apparent that items of clothing, such as cotton shorts were being described as using “88% less [water] than conventional materials”; its global warming impact was “14% less than conventional materials”.

The NCA did not research into H&M’s claims, instead doing so with one of the Norway’s own apparel company, Norrønam. The outdoor brand also used the Higg Index on its website, with researching concluding that the data is misleading consumers with unfounded claims.

Although H&M and Norrøna have paraded the rating system across their public product pages, they are amongst 250 brands who also use the Higg Index, others include Primark, Nike, Walmart, Amazon, and Tommy Hilfiger.

Textile sustainability activists rejoiced with the news of the Higg Index being retracted after questioning the validity of the Higg’s methodology since its arrival, as its approach centres around the lifecycle of a product.

“If you think of a lifecycle assessment as a clock face, the Higg MSI is only looking at midday to 3pm – only a very selective part of the impact,” said Philippa Grogan of the fashion sustainability consultancy Eco-Age. “To represent how sustainable a product is, we need the assessment to go from midnight to midnight – so not just from cradle to shop, but from cradle to grave.”

There is a distinct lack of information within the Higg Materials Sustainability Index around issues such as whether a garment will release microplastics or is biodegradable. “The Higg SMI does not enable consumers to make informed decisions,” added Grogan. “It’s derailing all the efforts of everyone involved… This is textbook greenwashing … they’re misleading consumers by attaching this wildly inaccurate data to clothes and footwear.”

With the Higg Index suspended for its outdated and unrepresentative research, critics contemplate the alternative possibilities; “Brands can just upload their own data,” said Grogan. “They can add data from a small cotton farm that uses best practice, and not the data from a massive one.”

Through an article from the New York Times which voiced activist voices against SAC, it was revealed that SAC’s research is being funded by the synthetic fibre industry; thus creating false information around human-made fibres being more sustainable than their natural counterparts.

In an interview with the Guardian, SAC’s CEO Amina Razvi said: “We constantly engage with both critics and stakeholders on the issues they have with the tools. That’s why our tools constantly evolve, based on feedback and the best available science.” She claimed that all the lifecycle assessment data is “vetted, verified and validated”, but admitted that “outdated data” was an industry problem and required improvement.

SAC remains outwardly committed to their promise of sustainability, announcing a meet with NCA to “clarify the misunderstandings or misconceptions about the methodology, and understand how our companies can make credible, consumer-facing claims.” She also said the SAC would do an independent, third-party investigation of their statistics and the procedures.

It needs to make everything open source and stop operating from behind closed doors,” said Grogan, on how the Higg index should work.

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