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ACM and its Norwegian counterpart issue guidelines for the clothing sector regarding the use of a material index in marketing communications

The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) and the Norwegian Consumer Authority (NCA) have drawn up guidelines for the way in which the clothing industry can use the Higg Material Sustainability Index (Higg MSI) in their communications involving sustainability claims targeting consumers. Major clothing brands use the Higg MSI to bolster their sustainability claims of materials. However, without any explanation, the data from the Higg MSI about the used materials could be unclear to consumers, and can easily become misleading. In the guidelines, ACM and the NCA have put forward recommendations for improving the use of the Higg MSI in communication about sustainability claims of materials to consumers.

Edwin van Houten, Director of ACM’s Consumer Department, says: “We find it positive that the clothing industry is committed to making the environmental impact of its materials more transparent for consumers. This helps consumers make more sustainable choices. It is important that they do so properly so that consumers are not misled. With these guidelines, we explain how businesses can do just that”.

Norwegian investigation into the Higg Material Sustainability Index

Last spring, the NCA conducted an investigation into a Norwegian clothing company. That company used the Higg MSI in its customer communications about the sustainability aspects of the materials used in its products. The NCA concluded that these sustainability claims on the basis of the Higg MSI were misleading, and demanded that the company stop using these claims. Following the NCA’s investigation, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which is the organization behind the Higg Index suite of five tools, one of which is Higg MSI, decided to suspend temporarily the use of Higg MSI in communicating sustainability claims to consumers. The SAC subsequently contacted various European regulators, including ACM and the NCA, for further guidance. In response to these consultations, ACM and NCA decided to publish these guidelines about the Higg MSI.

Information should be clear, concrete, and substantiated

For making it possible to use the Higg MSI as a tool to support and substantiate certain sustainability claims, ACM and the NCA have drawn up guidelines covering for i) the documentation and substantiation of sustainability claims for materials based on the Higg MSI, ii) the types of claims that can be made, and iii) how such claims should be presented to consumers:

  • Businesses that use the Higg MSI for its sustainability claims about materials should clearly indicate that this concerns general, average data that have no direct link to the production process of that specific product;
  • Businesses should indicate that a comprehensive impact analysis of the used materials has not been made, but rather an impact analysis for four categories, and that this is a ‘cradle-to-gate’ analysis (which is a sustainability impact analysis from production to sales);
  • In addition, it should be clear to consumers that the Higg MSI only compares the environmental impact within a single type of material, not between materials. This means that the impact of organic cotton is compared with conventional cotton, and not with polyester, for example;
  • Finally, the underlying data must be up-to-date and be validated by a third party.

Although the recommendations are meant for the use of the Higg MSI in communicating sustainability claims about materials, they are also important for the entire clothing industry, both for developers and providers of data instruments as well as for clothing companies that use these types of instruments. This guidance is based on the authorities' interpretation of current EU law, but is not a legally binding ruling.

ACM investigation into sustainability claims in the clothing sector

Over the past few years, ACM has carried out investigations into sustainability claims in the clothing sector, among other sectors. This has resulted in commitments made by sporting goods retail chain Decathlon and clothing retail chain H&M. They have promised to adjust or no longer use sustainability claims on their clothes and/or websites. They have additionally committed to informing consumers more clearly in order to minimize the risk of misleading practices involving sustainability claims. ACM will continue to keep a close watch on the clothing sector.

ACM and sustainability

ACM ensures that markets work for people and businesses, now and in the future. Sustainable products and consumption are essential for a future-ready society. With its oversight over sustainability claims, ACM plays its part in that process. Consumers must be able to make sustainable choices with confidence, and businesses that undertake sustainability efforts must be protected against businesses that compete unfairly by using misleading claims. In addition, ACM wishes to create the right conditions for promoting the sustainability transition. ACM eliminates obstacles, and offers leeway where needed and possible.