Higg MSI Stands Discredited; Norway Rules Against Norrøna, Warns H&M, Hauls up SAC

In a big blow for the Higg MSI tool, Norway has ruled that the former is not sufficient as a basis for the environmental claims that fast fashion retailer H&M and outdoor brand Norrona have used in marketing themselves and their products, and asked the two entities to change or remove the relevant marketing using the Higg MSI from their product pages within the stipulated time.

Long Story, Cut Short
  • The NCA, in a ruling announced on Thursday, said that Norrøna was breaking the law when they marketed their clothes as environment-friendly.
  • H&M has been issued the same warning against using the same type of marketing.
  • The Higg MSI being built on global average numbers, means that the reductions in environmental impact shown to consumers for the specific product, are not necessarily correct for the product in question.
The NCA said that Norrøna’s use of the Higg MSI will likely leave consumers with an impression that the numbers are true, accurate and descriptive of the specific product shown on norrona.com. However, the Higg MSI is based on global average numbers and not on data from the production of the specific product marketed.
Average Numbers The NCA said that Norrøna’s use of the Higg MSI will likely leave consumers with an impression that the numbers are true, accurate and descriptive of the specific product shown on norrona.com. However, the Higg MSI is based on global average numbers and not on data from the production of the specific product marketed. Norrøna Sport AS

The Higg MSI tool is not sufficient as a basis for the environmental claims that outdoor brand Norrøna and fast fashion giant H&M have been using in marketing themselves and their products, the Norwegian Consumer Agency (Forbrukertilsynet) has ruled.

The NCA, in a ruling announced on Thursday, said that Norrøna was breaking the law when they marketed their clothes as environment-friendly. Now, H&M has been issued the same warning against using the same type of marketing.

Norrøna had based its advertising on the industry tool Higg MSI, which measures the environmental impact of various textiles. The NCA has concluded that this tool is not sufficient as a basis for the environmental claims they have used in marketing. It has now sent letters to Norrøna, H&M and Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), supplier of the tool Higg MSI. The letters were marked 14 June.

The claims under question mostly pertained to organic cotton, and the allegation was that the` global average data behind the Higg MSI did not constitute sufficient evidence for the product specific claims.

The NCA wrote to Norrøna Sport AS on 14 February 2022 over the use of the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (Higg MSI) in marketing. Norrøna was asked to present documentation underlying the Higg MSI, which they did on 18 March 2022. An online meeting was held on 5 May, following which the NCA requested for further information, which were provided by Norrøna and the SAC on 27 May.

The NCA has now cited three primary reasons for discarding Norrøna's claims:

  • Norrøna’s use of the Higg MSI will likely leave consumers with an impression that the numbers are true, accurate and descriptive of the specific product shown on norrona.com. However, the Higg MSI is based on global average numbers and not on data from the production of the specific product marketed. The Higg MSI being built on global average numbers, means that the reductions in environmental impact shown to consumers for the specific product, are not necessarily correct for the product in question.
  • The data underlying the Higg MSI are partly scientifically outdated and not meant for comparisons as done by the use of the Higg MSI.
  • The relevant marketing and the Higg MSI does not take into account all relevant ways in which the products are affecting the environment. The “fossil fuels” impact category does not, for example, include emission from manure. If data with respect to other factors that impacts the environment were taken into account, the environmental impact of organic cotton products could be different than what is communicated to consumers in the marketing.

The NCA has asked Norrøna to change or remove the relevant marketing using the Higg MSI from their product pages no later than 14 August.

Some of the points that the NCA made:

  • The main problem with using global average numbers, is that such they fail to capture local variations in resource usage and environmental impact. There are significant differences in the way cotton is grown and how much water farmers use, as well as how and if they use these inputs efficiently. For example, climate, rainfall and irrigation technology vary greatly from one farm, country and / or region to another.
  • The Higg MSI does not distinguish between rainfed water (green water) and irrigation water (blue water).
  • Overall, the Higg MSI is likely to give the average consumer the impression that growing organic cotton always consumes drastically less water and that, mainly due to this, the product has a significantly reduced environmental impact than if the product had been made from conventional cotton. As far as we understand, the real reason behind the substantial reduction in water consumption in global average numbers is because organic cotton farms typically are located in places with more rainfall compared to most conventional cotton farms.
  • Thus, the real reason behind the reduction in water consumption is not because organic cotton farms always require less water compared to conventional cotton farms – but rather because of variations in rainfall in the regions where the respective cotton farms are located.
The NCA has asked H&M to familiarise themselves with the assessments made to Norrøna. They have been given a deadline of 1 September 2022 to arrange all their marketing in accordance with the assessments made in the Norrøna case, and in accordance with the regulations for the use of environmental claims otherwise.
Stern Warning The NCA has asked H&M to familiarise themselves with the assessments made to Norrøna. They have been given a deadline of 1 September 2022 to arrange all their marketing in accordance with the assessments made in the Norrøna case, and in accordance with the regulations for the use of environmental claims otherwise. H&M Group

Making a case for H&M and Sustainable Apparel Coalition

The NCA's letter to H&M was based on the ruling against Norrøna. The NCA said: "For H&M to avoid misleading marketing, H&M should specifically assess / reassess the justification for using the Higg MSI as a communicative tool in marketing, and these assessments should be conducted considering our conclusion in the Norrøna case."

The Authority emphasised: "If H & M uses and / or is planning to use Higg MSI data in marketing of garments in EU/EEA countries outside of Norway, we would strongly urge H & M to at the same time assess / reassess use of environmental claims in marketing towards consumers in other EU/EEA countries. The NCA only has authority to ask for a stop of marketing in Norway. However, please be aware that the relevant regulations in the Norwegian Marketing Control Act is based on a harmonized EU directive, as explained in the Norrøna letter. What constitutes a breach of the Marketing Control Act, will thus presumably constitute a breach of the law in the other EU/EEA countries. For your information, the NCA has a close collaboration with the other countries’ consumer authorities through EU regulation 2017/2394 on consumer protection cooperation."

In short, violating the NCA's order in other countries could be construed as a violation in those countries as well.

H&M has been given a deadline of 1 September 2022 to arrange all their marketing in accordance with the assessments that the NCA made in the Norrøna case, and in accordance with the regulations for the use of environmental claims.

The letter to the SAC was in a similar vein. The NCA said on its website: "Many players in the textiles industry use Higg MSI as an important part of their environmental work in choosing textiles for their products. Then it is important that the organisation that owns and operates Higg MSI takes responsibility for their customers not using Higg MSI in a misleading way in marketing their products."

The NCA wrote to the SAC: "With this letter, we would therefore like to remind you that besides the traders actually marketing a product, SAC has a separate responsibility for the marketing taking place by traders that use the Higg MSI and / or Higg MSI data and results in marketing of their products. The SAC should therefore take steps to ensure that the use of the Higg MSI by traders that SAC has entered into a partnership with, comply with the rules of the Marketing Control Act and the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive."

It also asked the SAC to ask its members not to use the Higg MSI as a marketing tool: "For the SAC to, as far as possible, avoid responsibility for misleading marketing from traders that use the Higg MSI as a marketing tool, SAC should not allow its partners to use the Higg MSI for marketing purposes towards consumers. The SAC could for example inform all their members that the Higg MSI cannot be used in marketing towards consumers and make this clear in standard contract terms towards partners."

The textiles industry must be aware that marketing of environmental benefits, which is based on the industry tool HigMSI, can easily be considered misleading and illegal marketing... When the clothing industry and others use environmental claims in marketing, it is important that the environmental claims are correct. It is a basic principle that marketing should be truthful and give the most balanced and precise impression possible of any environmental benefits. If not, consumers risk making purchasing choices on the wrong basis.

Trond Rønningen
Trond Rønningen / Director / Norwegian Consumer Agency
 
 
  • Dated posted: June 16, 2022
  • Last modified: June 16, 2022