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June 23, 2022

Norway declares leading sustainability index unusable in marketing to consumers

By Yasmin Jones-Henry and Fatima Benkhaled

The Higg Materials Sustainability Index – adopted by major fashion brands to tout their green credentials – has come under fire.

As the fashion industry races to redefine its ESG proposition, when it comes to sustainability the biggest challenge to consumers, brands, investors and policy-makers still revolves around access to accurate data and measurement tools.

The Higg Materials Sustainability Index developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is used by more than 500 brands including Nike and H&M, according to advocacy group Eco-Age.

Go-to tool

The Higg MSI has been widely regarded as the fashion industry’s ‘go-to’ suite of sustainability self-assessment tools. But the Norwegian Consumer Authority recently said that outerwear apparel brand Norrøna cannot use data from the index to make environmental claims about its products. It follows the NCA’s assessment that the brand’s claim of reductions in environmental impact for organic cotton t-shirts on its norrona.com website, using Higg MSI data, was “likely to be false and untruthful”, and therefore in breach of Norway’s Marketing Control Act.

The NCA concluded that Norrøna’s use of the Higg MSI to claim a reduction in environmental impact of an organic cotton t-shirt were “misleading to consumers and thus prohibited.” The Authority noted that the Higg MSI aims to measure the environmental impact of the materials in products, not the environmental impact of the life cycle of the entire product.

The NCA said that when compared to a t-shirt made from conventional cotton, the company’s claim about its organic t-shirt’s environmental impact was an “oversimplified, inaccurate and imprecise depiction of the specific product’s true environmental performance”. The watchdog has requested that Norrøna changes or removes the relevant marketing using the Higg MSI data no later than August 14.

Unfair advantage

Livia Firth, founder of Eco-Age, said: “[The Higg MSI has been] used by major fast fashion [brands] to shout about their sustainability. For us at Eco-Age it has always been a problem as, in its current state, this methodology unfairly favours certain fibres by only focusing on the manufacturing stage through limited sustainability metrics.”

Maxine Bédat, director of the New Standard Institute, a think tank that focuses on the fashion industry, said: “Hopefully the implication [of the Norrøna case] is that brands are careful about what claims they make.” However, she added that at the moment “there is not an appropriate alternative [to Higg MSI]. Either a government body would have to recreate and build off of what Higg has already done, or they work with Higg to ensure that the necessary data gaps are filled.”

In a statement, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition said: “We appreciate the Norwegian Consumer Authority sharing their report, and take their findings extremely seriously. We are reviewing the content of their analysis and will provide our response once this is complete.”

NCA has also warned H&M Group about the use of the Higg MSI in communicating the environmental credentials of its products to consumers.

Other countries may follow Norway’s example. The recent publication of the European Commission’s newly launched sustainable textiles strategy adds further pressure to clamp down on greenwashing and giving misinformation to both consumers and investors.

However, within the European Commission’s proposal to use the product environmental footprint (PEF) methodology to measure the environmental impact of clothing manufacturing, there is concern among consumer activist groups and think-tanks such as Fashion Revolution that this methodology will leave room for industry-wide greenwashing, as they say that, among other pitfalls, the PEF methodology doesn’t account for the detrimental effects of microplastic pollution.

This article has been updated on June 23 after being published to include the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s response to the NCA’s decision.

A service from the Financial Times