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June 17, 2022

H&M Group, Norrøna under fire in Norway over environmental claims

Norway’s consumer watchdog has issued warnings to clothing retailers H&M Group and Norrøna over what it deems “misleading environmental claims”, adding their use of the Higg Index is insufficient as a tool to support their environmental claims.

By Hannah Abdulla

The Norwegian Consumer Agency (Forbrukertilsynet) says it believes Norrøna is “breaking the law” in marketing clothes as environmentally friendly and has issued a warning to H&M Group against using the same type of environmental claims.

Forbrukertilsynet says outdoor clothing company Norrøna has based its advertising on the industry tool Higg MSI, which measures the environmental impact of various textiles. The Norwegian Consumer Agency has concluded that this tool is “not sufficient as a basis for the environmental claims they have used in marketing.”

Forbrukertilsynet says while it welcomes steps to make the industry more environmentally friendly, it is concerned over the use of the Higg MSI tool to make environmental claims.

It says the tool, developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, gives a standardised measurement of the environmental impacts of different textile types in the manufacture of clothing. However, it only “measures” the environmental impact of different types of textiles until the fabric itself is finished – ie not the entire environmental impact of a finished garment you buy in the store. This “measurement” is based on average figures for the environmental impact of the various types of textiles that have been sourced from different regions and countries in the world.

Trond Rønningen, director of the Norwegian Consumer Agency, says: “When the clothing industry and others use environmental claims in marketing, it is important that the environmental claims are correct. It is a basic principle that marketing should be truthful and give the most balanced and precise impression of any environmental benefits. If not, consumers risk making purchasing choices on the wrong basis.”

Forbrukertilsynet alleges Norrøna has used figures from Higg MSI to communicate the environmental benefits of organic cotton T-shirts. But, it says, this marketing gives the impression that because the T-shirt is produced from organic cotton rather than “ordinary” cotton, the T-shirt has a significantly less environmental impact. It adds it “cannot see that Norrøna has evidence for such a claim.”

“We have concluded that the use of Higg MSI in marketing to consumers is misleading in this case, and thus illegal. We asked Norrøna to remove or change the marketing of environmental benefits based on Higg MSI.”

The watchdog has also warned H&M Group of its use or planned use of the Higg MSI to communicate the environmental benefits of its products to consumers. 

It says it informed H&M Group that it will “easily be misleading and forbidden” if it uses Higg MSI as a basis for their environmental claims in marketing.

In addition, it has sent a letter to the SAC informing of their “co-responsibility” if their members use Higg MSI as a basis for environmental claims in their marketing in an illegal way.

“In order for SAC to avoid liability, we have encouraged SAC to stipulate that it is not permitted for the players using Higg MSI to use this tool for marketing environmental benefits to consumers.”

Response to environmental claims

In an email to Just Style, the SAC said it appreciated the Norwegian Consumer Authority sharing its report and that it took the findings “extremely seriously”.

“We are reviewing the content of their analysis and will provide our response once this is complete,” it added.

While a spokesperson for Norrøna told Just Style: Our vision is to welcome current and future generations to nature, and our main purpose is to deliver high-quality products with lasting function and design made through a sustainable supply chain and platform. Our work towards becoming 100% sustainable has been continuous for a number of years, in which we are a leader in our industry and is our highest priority. Since 2015, we have been as transparent and concrete as possible about our sustainability goals through our 2021 roadmap. 

“Part of this work involves a greater commitment to the environment and assisting consumers in making knowledgeable choices that have an impact on the environment. In no way do we want to mislead consumers. Our aim is to provide as much enlightening information as possible about the products that are being considered for purchase. Verified data through independent third parties is crucial in this context. It is also our rationale for why we cooperate with Textile Exchange, The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), The Swedish Textile Initiative for Climate Action (STICA) and Fashion for Good among others. 

“We recognise that the data around cotton production is not perfect. Though we see it as the best data available at the moment. We see no other solution for measuring sustainability in textiles than by using generalized data. This in particular applies to “living” materials such as wool, cotton, leather, down. We clearly state in our communications that this data is based on generalised figures for the production of organic cotton. The information on the environmental footprint is in no way intended to be misleading to our consumers.”

However, the outdoor gear retailer says on the back of feedback from the Norwegian Consumer Authority it is currently in the process of reviewing its copy to ensure necessary updates. It will also have a guidance meeting with the watchdog in August as it has “no desire to move away from the frontier in this important communication.”

“Without the use of facts and data around production methods and materials, it will not be possible for the consumer to obtain sufficient information about a product. It is important that the consumer learns how a product is: manufactured, where the raw materials come from, ideally what chemicals are used on the product, how much energy has been spent on production, water consumption, and at the very least, be informed that manufacturers have control over the social conditions associated with production at the factories. Therefore, we are committed to providing as factual and comprehensive data as possible from our production. This is why we work with and support the financial work of the Textile Exchange’s Life Cycle Assessment program (LCA+) to better shed light on regional differences through production,” it adds.

A spokesperson for H&M said: “As a member of the SAC, H&M supports the SAC and the journey that they have embarked upon to develop a unified way for brands, retailers, and manufacturers to share verified environmental impact data related to products and offer customers greater transparency and the possibility to make more informed purchasing decisions. That said, we believe that this is a starting point for the industry, not the end destination, but at this point, we believe this is the most robust tool available to the industry at scale today.

“The Higg MSI is collecting the available life cycle assessment data sources for materials commonly used in clothing and footwear. Data within the MSI comes from leading global data sources including Quantis and Sphera. The SAC also regularly invites the industry, including specific fibre associations, to submit new data to continuously improve the tool for all decision-makers. It’s important to remember that the current version of the transparency program was launched in 2021 and the data used needs to be continuously updated as the impact of the material changes along with new materials and better practices in sourcing. That is something that the SAC continuously strives to do and something we support in order to have as accurate data as possible.”

In March, the UK Competition and Markets Authority advised the government to clarify the law on providing environmental information to consumers – including having standard definitions for terms like ‘carbon neutral’ which it says will help make it easier for shoppers to make choices around sustainability.

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