Fashion brands that make misleading claims about their environmental credentials face a crackdown by the competition watchdog as it targets greenwashing.
Brands could be forced to change the way they advertise or face court action if they are found to have breached consumer protection law with spurious environmental claims.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is understood to have prioritised fashion because of the size of the market and the scale of consumer concerns. Other sectors, including transport, food and drink, and beauty are also expected to be investigated over their environmental claims.
Cecilia Parker Aranha, the CMA’s director of consumer protection, said: “People are becoming increasingly aware of the negative impact that fashion can have on our planet. We know many shoppers are actively looking for brands which are doing good things for the environment – and we want to make sure the claims they see are stacking up.
“Our work so far indicates that there could be issues with greenwashing in the fashion sector and that is why we’ve prioritised this area for further investigation.
“Now is the time for the fashion industry to take a fresh look at what they’re telling customers and make any changes needed to comply with the law. Businesses that can’t back up their claims risk action from the CMA and damage to their reputation in the long-run.”
The investigation comes as the fashion industry faces increasing pressure to reduce its environmental impact as some estimates indicate it is responsible for between 2% and 8% of global carbon emissions.
Its thought the global industry contributes more to the climate emergency than the aeronautical and shipping industries combined and, if trends continue, it could account for a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. The growing volume of online shopping returns have also fuelled concern among campaigners.
The pressure group Changing Markets Foundation released a report last year into the use of synthetic fibres by 46 leading brands. It said that 60% of claims by UK and European fashion companies, including Asos, H&M and Zara, were unsubstantiated and misleading shoppers.
The report particularly criticised the use of polyester made from recycled plastic bottles which it said was a “false solution” and said brands were not doing enough to ensure their clothing was recyclable.
Urska Trunk, the campaign manager at Changing Markets, said: “While brands are quick to capitalise on consumer concern by using sustainability as a marketing ploy, the vast majority of such claims are all style and no substance. While they greenwash their clothing collections, they are simultaneously dragging their feet on embracing truly circular solutions, for example by not making the necessary investments to ensure a future in which clothes can be recycled back into clothes.”
It picked out H&M’s ethical Conscious Collection for using more synthetics than in its main collection, with one in five items analysed found to be made from 100% fossil fuel-derived synthetic materials.
H&M said it based its product sustainability claims on “credible third-party certification schemes for our materials to ensure sustainable sourcing and integrity” such as the Global Recycled Standard.
The Swedish fast-fashion retailer said that polyester made up 27% of its material use, however it agreed that “recycled polyester from single-use plastic bottles shouldn’t be the long-term solution for the industry”.
It said while it was investing in recycling, textile-to-textile recycling solutions are needed, hence its investment in recycling technologies, such as Worn Again, TreeToTextile and Renewcell.
The CMA began looking into green claims in 2020, finding that up to 40% could be misleading to consumers. It gave companies making misleading claims about their environmental credentials until the end of last year to stop the practice, which is known as “greenwashing”.
The Advertising Standards Authority has clamped down on several big companies in recent years over greenwashing adverts, including the airline Ryanair, the carmaker BMW and the oil producer Shell.