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Zalando reprimanded by EU regulator: will misleading sustainability claims soon be a thing of the past?

By Esmee Blaazer


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Image purely to illustrate sustainability claims. Credits: owned by Mood Media (press release 'Two third shoppers are looking for inspiration in a store' from Mood Media, dated December 13, 2023)

Primark Netherlands was recently reprimanded for greenwashing. Prior to this, retail chains H&M and Decathlon were also reprimanded by the Dutch regulator ACM for unclear and vague green claims.

The Advertising Code Committee ruled in 2023 that certain advertising statements from Primark Netherlands clothing were misleading after a complaint from fashion professional Sara Dubbeldam, and earlier this year the appeal judge drew the same conclusion.

Now the European Consumer Authority has taken web giant Zalando to task for misleading sustainability claims, it was announced a few days ago. In this light, FashionUnited asks Judith Bussé, a lawyer specialized in ESG law and owner of the Brussels office Pivot Law, four questions about greenwashing and emerging legislation and regulations regarding sustainability.

Zalando has been approached by the European Consumer Authority, under the coordination of the European Commission and with the involvement of national consumer authorities. This is part of a broader effort to protect consumers from misleading information, particularly around sustainability, in line with EU rules on fair trading practices. Zalando has committed to providing clear consumer information and removing misleading sustainability labels and icons from the webshop .

This text was written using an artificial intelligence tool and then edited.

1. Will vague and unsubstantiated sustainability claims soon come to an end now that more and more clothing companies are being reprimanded for pretending to be greener than they are?

Bussé: “Unfortunately, that end is not yet in sight, but stricter enforcement of the existing rules on misleading information is a step in the right direction. The fact that large companies are being reprimanded by both national and European authorities (the European Commission and the so-called “Consumer Protection Network”) indicates that consumer authorities are monitoring this subject increasingly seriously.”

“More enforcement also means an increasingly clear interpretation of what is and what is not acceptable. The more precedents emerge on the market, the less vague and unsubstantiated sustainability claims will be made. The new regulations will also play a major role in this.”

“Yet it is an illusion to think that greenwashing will soon come to an end. Some companies do not have the knowledge or resources to control the entire production process. They often simply accept the information they receive from their suppliers. In addition, science continues to evolve every day, giving us more and more insight into the impact of certain products and production processes.”

Image purely to illustrate sustainability claims. Credits: owned by Mood Media (press release 'Two third shoppers are looking for inspiration in a store' from Mood Media, dated December 13, 2023)

2. What about the upcoming legislation and regulations to further restrict greenwashing?

“There are currently two important European directives in the making. On the one hand, there is Directive 2022/0092, which guarantees European consumers better information and better protection against unfair practices so that they can make informed transaction decisions to promote sustainable consumption. The final text was adopted by the Council on 20 February after a first reading by the European Parliament. After signing, the European member states have two years to transpose this into (their) national law.”

“On the other hand, there is the so-called “Green Claims” Directive 2023/0085 on substantiating, validating and communicating sustainability claims. The text of this proposal still needs to be finally approved by the European Parliament in a plenary meeting, which will probably take place in March. The proposal includes rules on how companies can validate their environmental claims and stricter sanctions for companies that break the rules. The proposal now needs to be approved by the European Parliament at a plenary meeting, which is likely to take place on March 11. This Directive must then also be signed and transposed into national law. Here too, a period of two years is provided.”

“In addition, there are a number of other relevant instruments, such as the Ecodesign Regulation (2022/0095) which is also going through the final steps to be adopted during the course of this year. The approval of the proposal regarding the right to recovery or repair (2023/0083) is also expected this year.”

Text continues below the image3. How can fashion companies best prepare for future legislation and guidelines?

“The best preparation at this time is to collect information about substances used and production processes. Fashion companies are expected to be able to accurately substantiate all sustainability claims in the future. It goes without saying that this requires objective and verified information and it is never too early to collect it.”

“In addition, it goes without saying that fashion companies should now refrain from spreading misleading or vague information or communicating unsubstantiated sustainability claims.”

“My motto is to educate marketing, content and design teams in the do's and don'ts of sustainability. With a clear framework and a sustainable and future-oriented vision that is supported by your company, you can go a long way.”

Image purely to illustrate sustainability claims. Credits: owned by Mood Media (press release 'Two third shoppers are looking for inspiration in a store' from Mood Media, dated December 13, 2023)

4. How and what can you pay attention to as a consumer? (Can you even trust green claims from major retail chains and web giants)?

“Consumers can already contribute to the green transition.”

“When you, as a consumer, come across a sustainability claim, take the time to investigate it a little further. Do not rely solely on the claims made on packaging or in advertisements, especially when these are particularly vague, such as 'environmentally friendly' or ' eco-conscious ' without further specification. Look for independent sources, concrete evidence or figures behind the claim, or for quality marks that certify the sustainability of a product.”

“If you cannot immediately find additional sources, ask the company for evidence supporting the sustainability claims. In principle, fashion companies should be able to provide transparency about how they verified their claims and what criteria they used.”

“Compare messages from different brands and products. That can also provide additional insight. Look at the origin of materials, production processes used, the quality and lifespan of the product to estimate the sustainability claim. You may prefer companies that are transparent about their sustainability efforts.

“Finally, if you are confronted with misleading information, you can always contact the national consumer authority to expose such greenwashing practices.”

This article was originally published on FashionUnited.NL, translated and edited to English.

There is no set definition, but the term greenwashing refers to the deceptive practices used by companies or organizations to portray themselves as more environmentally friendly or sustainable than they actually are. For a better image and/or to stimulate the sales of products and services.

Greenwashing is not new, the term dates back to 1986, but you may see it more often than ever. Because, with consumers' increasing interest in more environmentally friendly products, the number of cases of greenwashing has also increased in recent years.

A 2020 European Commission study found that more than 53 percent of environmental claims in the EU were vague, misleading or unfounded.

Please note: greenwashing is not always done intentionally or with bad intentions. Sometimes it can come from enthusiasm or a lack of professional knowledge.

There is no doubt that greenwashing is detrimental. It harms companies and consumers and hinders the transition to a more sustainable society/future.

[Source: This is greenwashing (and the latest state of affairs) ]

Read also:
European Commission
Pivot Law
Primark Netherlands
Sustainable Fashion