H&M is slated to revisit the language that it uses to advertise supposedly “sustainable” offerings, such as those from its Conscious Collection, following a probe by a Dutch market regulator. In the wake of an investigation by the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (“ACM”), which found that H&M has engaged in greenwashing, namely, by making “unclear and insufficiently substantiated sustainability claims,” including its use of terms like “ecodesign” and “conscious,” the Swedish fast fashion giant has agreed to “adjust” or refrain from making unsubstantiated sustainability claims on – or in connection with – its offerings in order to “minimize the risk of misleading practices involving sustainability claims.”

“Consumers should be confident that [companies’] sustainability claims have a basis in fact, or there is a danger they are being misled,” ACM board member Cateautje Hijmans van den Bergh said in a statement on Tuesday in connection with the advertising body’s findings. In order to settle the matter, Stockholm-headquartered H&M – which maintains brick-and-mortar stores and e-commerce services in the Netherlands – has agreed to adjust or remove sustainability claims that are not substantiated and to avoid making such claims going forward. (An advertising claim generally requires substantiation if it makes an objective assertion about a product or service, either expressly or in an implied manner.)

The ACM says it will monitor H&M’s advertising claims for the next two years. Meanwhile, the ACM opted not the penalize H&M from a monetary perspective, as the company has vowed to donate 500,000 euros to “independent organizations working towards sustainable goals.” Not limited to H&M, the ACM similarly found that French sporting goods retailer Decathlon S.A. made “unclear” advertising claims related to the sustainability of its offerings, as well.

H&M Conscious collection ad

A spokesperson for H&M stated on Tuesday, “We have taken the decision to remove H&M’s Conscious Choice indicator from our online shop worldwide. This work is in progress and will be finalized by the end of October.”

While the ACM’s retail-focused probes and subsequent actions are expected to serve as a wakeup call for brands that are making sustainability-focused claims that they cannot back up (even if those claims are relatively vague in nature), there is likely still room for companies like H&M to continue to advertise their “sustainable” credentials. Reflecting on the ACM’s action, sustainability policy expert Kristen Fanarakis says that it could “put a damper on [H&M’s marketing of] ‘conscious’ collections,” but the wording of the CMA’s release “suggests that H&M could simply use recycled or organic fabrics” in these collections in order to substantiate its existing “conscious” claims and without altering its offerings or the practices that go into manufacturing and/or distributing them.

This may enable H&M to avoid running afoul of the Dutch Advertising Code – and thereby, avoiding sanctions that will likely follow in the event that the ACM uncovers additional unsubstantiated advertising by the company over the course of the next two years, in particular. However, it does not address larger sustainability issues around the decline in average “use” of clothing versus the increase in average apparel consumption (and subsequent discarding), according to Fanarakis. Beyond that, such a solution also does not touch on issues regarding product materials/quality, which represent an integral element in the bigger picture of circularity and sustainability.

And still yet, the impact will almost certainly be limited to products advertised and sold in the Dutch market; as of the time of publication, products on H&M’s U.S. e-commerce site still bore the “Conscious Choice” label.

The ACM’s probe comes amid rising regulatory and private action in the sustainability and ESG marketing realm, with Norway’s consumer watchdog, for example, taking on H&M for its allegedly misleading marketing of its “sustainable” Conscious collection back in 2019. “Based on the Norwegian website of H&M, we found that the information given regarding sustainability was not sufficient, especially given that the Conscious Collection is advertised as a collection with environmental benefits,” the Norwegian Consumer Authority stated at the time. 

More recently, H&M was accused of “taking advantage of consumers’ interest” in sustainability and products that “do not harm the environment” in a false advertising lawsuit filed in the U.S. According to the proposed class action complaint that she filed in a New York federal court in July, Plaintiff Chelsea Commodore claims that in an attempt to target the growing segment of eco-conscious consumers who are willing to pay more for “sustainably-made” garments and accessories, the Swedish fast fashion giant prominently incorporated “‘environmental scorecards’ for its products called ‘Sustainability Profiles’” into the labeling, packaging, and marketing materials for hundreds of its offerings – only to ultimately remove them after being called out for using “falsified information that did not comport with the underlying data.” That case is currently underway.