By Natalia Hau, a senior account manager based in Sandpiper’ office in Singapore. Natalia has 9 years’ experience in providing strategic communications and technical counsel for clients in agriculture, FMCG, retail, renewable energy and sustainability. She is a certified ISCC and SA800 auditor.
For decades, fast fashion companies faced little scrutiny around their sustainability credentials and practices – particularly around those that existed in their supply chains.
But times have changed.
The furore over recent greenwashing allegations against H&M, the multinational clothing company, has cast a significant pallor over the fast fashion industry as well as the challenges that tagged along the trend of conscious consumption.
News of H&M’s egregious marketing statements first came to light after the findings of a Quartz report were published, highlighting its misleading Higg Index scores for its clothing. More than 100 of the 600 women’s clothing scorecards on its UK site consisted of errors that falsely advertised clothing to be more sustainable than they were.
The groundswell pressure to hold the retail behemoth and others of its ilk accountable, succeeded. In 2021, the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) launched an investigation into H&M as well as other retail brands like Decathlon. It reported that the retailers were loosely using eco-centric vernacular such as “Conscious Collection “, bereft of evidentiary support.
ACM concluded that the two brands in question have committed to improving on their customer-facing communications, on top of six-figure donations to chosen sustainable causes as compensation for their erroneous claims. Only time will tell if such remediation is severe enough to galvanize genuine organizational changes from within.
While the dust settles around this PR maelstrom, we should take this opportunity to look at the conditions that have enabled fashion players to slide down, perhaps inadevertently, the slippery slope of spurious greenwashing.
The increasing pivot to sustainability in recent years, fuelled by consumer and investor demand, has placed companies under great duress to educate, upskill people and overhaul practices within a short amount of time, to meet lofty SDGs and emissions targets.
The fast fashion industry feels that pressure acutely. Highly resource intensive, the sector also accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, with around 85% of finished textile goods meeting their demise in landfills year.
For quite some time, fashion companies have been nesting in the comfortable complacency that consumers are indoctrinated to buy anything that is packaged and marketed well. Campaigns often revolve around aesthetics, unique product attributes, celebrity endorsements, promotional pricing etc. The distance between manufacturers and brand in a customer-facing industry results in an emotional dissonance that breeds ignorance, or worse, indifference.
As a result, enabled by the apathy of their customers, the industry perhaps viewed sustainability as a product feature to peddle to the masses, than a natural extension of genuine organisational changes. To make things murkier, words like “eco-friendly” and “green” have loose, varied definitions, potentially confusing consumers that are not well-versed in sustainability lexicon.
As the H&M example has taught us, engaging in marketing legerdemain is a short-term band-aid that ironically would incur far-reaching consequences on a company’s reputation, customer loyalty and bottom line.
Greenwashing by way of unsupported claims, omitting information or leaving out parts of the supply chain, may initially seem like a cost-effective, time-expedient way to win customers. Furthermore, given the trend-driven nature of the industry, this can be seen as an opportunity to improve brand equity and sales.
But as the H&M example has taught us, engaging in marketing legerdemain is a short-term band-aid that ironically would incur far-reaching consequences on a company’s reputation, customer loyalty and bottom line.
Sustainable fast fashion is an oxymoron that should not exist. The “cheap but expensive” paradox plaguing fashion brands makes it challenging to optimise supply chains without changing cost structures, given that the main value proposition is affordability.
In a 2021 report by Changing Markets Foundation, approximately 60% of sustainability claims declared by 12 global fashion brands were found to be ambiguous or unsubstantiated.
Consumers themselves are also increasingly willing to go to investigate and verify claims of products and brands. Those caught in a lie are now more likely to be social media fodder, subject to scorn and ridicule, and plenty examples of this now exist.
What then, can these brands do to restore credibility and trust, during this critical yet inchoate period of ESG disclosures, compliance measures and supply chain responsibility in the fashion world?
Every PR crisis brings about a lesson that we all can learn from. In the realm of fast fashion, where trends are short-lived and preferences are fickle, communicating with humility and transparency will always be in season.