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Norwegian and Dutch watchdogs publish guidance on Higg MSI use

By Rachel Douglass


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Image: NCA

Norwegian and Dutch consumer authorities have published a guidance document detailing the use of the Higg Material Sustainability Index (MSI) tool after the Scandinavian organisation found it was “misleading” consumers.

The two firms have concluded that data from Higg MSI was not a sufficient basis for environmental marketing claims, which they said was intentional and therefore in breach of the EU’s Marketing Act.

The conclusion means that any environmental claims based on information from Higg MSI can “quickly be illegal both in Norway and in the rest of the EU area”, a press release read.

The Norwegian Consumer Protection Authority (NCA) announced the launch of its investigation into the tool in spring 2022, during which it looked into how clothing manufacturers were using the system in consumer-based marketing.

Its developer, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), claimed the feature measures how different textile types affect the environment, with brands such as H&M having previously used the index as a basis for their environmental claims.

At the time of the investigation’s launch, the NCA, however, said it had found that the system appeared to have broken guidelines under Norway’s Marketing Control Act, which targets green claims made by businesses.

Ultimately, the SAC decided to pause the use of its consumer-oriented services and labels following the report.

The company has now been sent a joint guidance by the NCA and the Dutch Autoriteit Consument & Markt on the use of its Higg MSI.

Requirements for clearer marketing and third party approval

In the document, the NCA said that the tool was problematic as it was using global averages for documentation in product-specific claims, among other elements.

It further detailed that this factor must be clearer to consumers, ensuring they are aware that any figures used are net global averages and are not linked directly to the product.

The two authorities have asked the SAC to appoint an independent third party to review the basis of the data and the methods used, and to also ensure that any information used is transparent in partnered company’s marketing.

The watchdogs noted that the guidance can benefit businesses in other industries, but its results are particularly important for the entire textile sector.

Its release concluded: “Many companies in the industry use Higg MSI or similar tools, both when selecting fabric for the clothes they make, and as documentation for environmental claims in marketing. Therefore, all businesses in the industry should read the guidance document if they wish to include environmental claims in their marketing.”

Edit 16:30, Oct 11: The SAC has provided a statement to FashionUnited in response to the NCA's ruling

The statement reads as follows: "The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is united with the Norwegian Consumer Authority (NCA) and the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) on the need for environmental information shared with consumers from apparel and footwear brands to be credible, accurate and substantiated. Only by the industry working together with policy makers and regulators can the scale of the change that is needed be achieved.

"We are grateful for the collaboration and productive discussions we have had with the NCA and ACM. Following these discussions, the Dutch and Norwegian authorities have issued guidance solely for “...the use of the Higg MSI in marketing measures and the presentation of the Higg MSI data towards consumers”. While also intended to be of use for all traders in the industry who wish to include environmental claims in their marketing to consumers, the guidance document does not relate to any of the other Higg Index suite of tools, which continue to be used extensively by the apparel and footwear industry to drive positive social and environmental improvements in global supply chains.

"Based on the authorities' interpretation of current EU law, the guidance does not represent a formal legal framework or ruling and is not legally binding on the authorities or the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. This means that the important task now is for us to work through this guidance with legal and topic experts to explore the feasibility of application while ensuring any resulting methodology and communications are in line with the wider European framework.

"The Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s role is to establish common ground with all parties of the apparel and footwear industry and work with our members to lessen their impact. We enable brands, retailers, and manufacturers to measure, improve and share their sustainability performance.

"To assist the industry in moving forward, we need harmonised regulations and clear, coordinated information on how information can be presented to consumers. Our ambition, following the next phase of collaboration with the NCA and the European Commission, is to provide guidance for our members, and the wider industry, to ensure all environmental claims are as robust as possible.

"As previously announced, we have commenced a third-party expert review of the Higg MSI to further evaluate and develop the tool. We are also doubling down on our efforts on critical data collection from across the material industries."

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