H&M is unveiling its first-ever line of organic skincare products. That launch follows the introduction of the chain's first-ever 100% sustainable apparel collection -- and increasingly intense criticism from environmental watchdogs.
The company says both the skincare collection and the 80-piece spring clothing line, called Garden, will be in its stores this month. And with its bright florals made from organic cotton and linen, recycled polyester and Tencel, enhanced with plenty of embroidery, rosettes and appliqués, it may be a splashy way to announce the Swedish apparel giant's stepped-up commitment to sustainability. While it has long been a fashion leader in organics, H&M has pledged to increase its use of organic cotton by 50% each year until 2013, and it claims it used 3,000 tons last year.
Just after announcing the introduction in January, however, the company was slammed by a German press report accusing it -- along with other European companies like C&A and Tchibo -- of using fabric tainted by genetically modified cotton from India. (Organic standards prohibit genetic modifications.)
The company responded with a statement on its Web site, claiming that while it has no reason to believe its allegedly organic garments contain the tainted cotton, it is aware that the certifying agencies have been criticized for "insufficient checks of farmers' control systems for seeds and sowing," and that steps have been taken to step up audits and inspections.
How that brouhaha will affect H&M customers, of course, remains to be seen. "Greenwashing isn't always a bunch of lies made up by evil marketers," Valerie Davis, principal and CEO of EnviroMedia Social Marketing, an ad agency based in Austin, Tex., tells Marketing Daily. "Often it's totally unintentional. So when something goes wrong with the environmental marketing claims, it's how the company acknowledges and addresses the problem that's important. And if it's done right, consumers may embrace the brand even more."
Clearly, H&M hopes that's true. All the new bodycare products -- which include shower gel, body scrub, body lotion, hand cream and lip balm -- are organic, and certified by Ecocert, one of the world's leading organic certification organizations. (The products are based on apple juice, sunflower seed oil, almond seeds, jojoba and beeswax, and sold in recyclable packaging.)
Of course, one concern is that greenwashing accusations can cause "consumers to tune out all environmental messaging," says Davis. "And if there is no customer loyalty benefit, companies will have one less incentive to implement real sustainable business practices."
But increasingly, shoppers are getting smarter, not more cynical. Her company runs a site called GreenwashingIndex.com, in conjunction with the University of Oregon, which allows consumers to post ads, and then comment on their environmental claims. "Consumers are getting more savvy when it comes to environmental imaging in advertising," she says, "and are now looking for facts about how the company is backing up the environmental message."