A consumer transparency program launched by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to defend against greenwashing is on pause as of Monday after “misleading” green claims.
It all goes back to a letter sent on Valentine’s Day this year, in which Norway’s consumer watchdog, the Norwegian Consumer Authority, began probing into outdoor brand Norrøna’s eco-marketing claims. Not liking what it found, earlier this month, “The NCA [concluded] that Norrøna’s marketing of products with environmental claims, by using data from the Higg MSI, is misleading to consumers and thus prohibited” by Norway’s Marketing Control Act.
The NCA asked Norrøna to change or remove the relevant marketing (that appeared in the marketing of organic cotton T-shirts) before Aug. 14 this year, and issued similar warnings to H&M. Both brands stood by the SAC and welcomed the ongoing quest for transparency and data assurance.
The consumer transparency program was first launched in May 2021 and uses data from the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, which is part of a suite of impact measurement tools for fashion that has faced growing criticism. The SAC owns and oversees the methodology behind the Higg Index tools while Higg, a tech firm, hosts the data on its tech platform. As part of the program, impact categories like water use, global warming, fossil fuels and water pollution were detailed in consumer-facing product “sustainability profiles” piloted online by H&M and Norrøna.
Could there be reputation risks for brands who signed on for a faltering program launched to combat greenwashing?
Along with Norrøna and H&M, the program counts a broad swatch of industry heavyweights with PVH Corp., Zalando, Amazon, Boozt, C&A, Columbia Sportswear, Helly Hansen, JustWears, Lenzing AG, Puma and Salomon all signing on to the initial program.
WWD reached out to a number of brands for a status update on the program last week but did not receive substantive updates except that brands were looking into the request.
Although in cooperation with the watchdog, the SAC had not taken any conciliatory action until Monday announcing a pause of the program after careful reflection and, in addition, announced a third-party audit to be conducted on the Higg MSI data and methodology.
“We have made the decision to pause the consumer facing transparency program globally as we work with the NCA and other consumer agencies and regulators to better understand how to substantiate product level claims with trusted and credible data,” the SAC statement read. “While we remain fully committed to the use of standardized data to empower better decision making with all stakeholders, we recognize the additional challenges that come from translating LCA data to consumer facing information. We will be working with our program partners directly to determine how this will work operationally and hope to reactivate the programme upon alignment with the NCA and other regulatory bodies.”
The last third-party audit for the Higg MSI was in 2016 and the decision to push forward another one was accelerated “in light of the NCA notification,” per the emailed statement. The audit may also be an opportunity for fiber stakeholders to discuss material scores.
Representing more than half of the apparel industry by membership, the SAC said it will work on a “comprehensive program” through industry partnerships, to gather and update the environmental impact data quality and accessibility needed for the industry to drive more informed decisions.
The SAC underlined its mission to support the industry’s sustainable transformation affirming, “Change won’t happen without collaboration; we are using this opportunity to encourage other industry voices and stakeholders to get in touch with ideas, changes or suggestions for how we might work together to accelerate transformation.”