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Fashion brand’s greenwashing no longer in style for UK watchdog

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The UK’s competition watchdog, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), announced that it will be probing sustainability claims from major British fashion brands including Asos, Boohoo and Asda’s George brand.

The investigation comes as part of the CMA’s initial review into the fashion sector in January 2022, which identified concerns around potentially misleading green claims in the sector. While the probe focuses on three brands for now, the CMA will also consider whether to “put additional firms under the microscope”.

“This is just the start of our work in this sector and all fashion companies should take note”, warned CMA interim chief executive Sarah Cardell.

Climate impacts of the fashion industry

The fashion sector accounts for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) globally, and presents a massive supply chain challenge in terms of sustainability. It is big business in the UK, with the UK’s Office for National Statistics reporting that based on sales volume, annual spending on clothing and footwear in the sector reached £54 billion in 2020. The average person in the UK buys more clothes annually than any other country in Europe, as ‘fast fashion’ continues to dominate the market.

‘Fast fashion’ is a business model that has been gaining speed since the 1980s, which includes increased number of collections, quick turnarounds and usually low prices. While the access to the latest stylish trends and cheap prices may benefit the consumer, it does not benefit the planet.

Analysis from consultancy McKinsey estimates that the fashion sector contributes approximately 2.1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually – comparable to the annual GHG emissions of France, Germany and the UK combined. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that if the industry doesn’t change, the sector could take up to a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.

The fashion industry is also a major consumer of water. UNEP estimates that it takes 3,781 litres of water just to make a single pair of jeans. Globally, the fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic meters of water – enough to meet the consumption needs of five million people.

Waste in fashion is also a major climate issue. A UK Parliament report estimates that around 300,000 tonnes of used clothes are burned or buried in landfills annually in the UK.

Green is this season’s trendiest colour for UK brands

While there is a demand from consumers to purchase more ‘green’ clothing, fashion brands have rolled out sustainable fashion lines but not necessarily with the best intentions.

“We have taken the view that the growing consumer demand for green products and their willingness to pay for those green products has increased the incentive for businesses to be seen as green, whether or not they actually are green” explained the CMA’s director of consumer protection Cecilia Parker Aranha.

As part of its investigation, the CMA will take a closer look at eco claims from fashion brands to determine if they are too ‘broad and vague’, giving the consumer the impression the product is more sustainable than it actually is. They will also investigate if the products are transparent about fabric accreditation schemes and standards, and if the product is missing information about what the fabric is made from.

“Should we find these companies are using misleading eco claims, we won’t hesitate to take enforcement action – through the court if necessary”, said Cardell.

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