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Navigating Sustainability Claims in Fashion – A Q&A with Melanie Howard and Lucy Tammam

The fashion industry is an exhilarating, dynamic space that celebrates creativity and self-expression. While fashion undeniably holds a captivating allure, it’s crucial to recognize that beneath the surface of trends and style, it operates as a formidable business. Embracing transparency in its practices becomes not just a choice but a commitment, as the intricate dance between artistry and commerce continues to shape the ever-evolving landscape of this vibrant industry.

In this Q&A, Melanie Howard, chair of the firm’s Luxury Brands and Intellectual Property Protection practices and deputy chair of the Advanced Media and Technology department, and Lucy Tammam, owner of Tammam, a London-based sustainable couture fashion studio, discuss the complexities of navigating sustainability claims in the fashion industry. They also highlight the topic of greenwashing and strategies for instilling transparency in couture fashion supply chains. From legal risks faced by brands to the growing impact of consumer awareness on industry policies, this discussion unveils the intersection where style meets responsibility. 

Sustainability is incorporated into the design and ethos of the Tammam label, and evidenced in your recent collaboration with the European Space Agency. What motivated you to make this commitment?

Lucy: When I studied fashion design at Central Saint Martins, I was already a human and animal rights activist. I wanted to integrate these values into my work but was told not to bother. Despite the advice of my teachers, I persisted and graduated into a world that didn’t prioritize the planet alongside business. I couldn’t find a single company that aligned with my values, so I decided to start my own.

My journey has been incredible, allowing me not only to incorporate sustainability into my work but also to actively promote it. I’m deeply inspired by new innovations, yet equally captivated by traditional techniques that have sustainability at their core. In 2020, when I began working with the Climate Stripes collection, it further reinforced the importance of striving toward regenerating our planet.

The One Dress project highlighted the possibility of sustainable supply chains in the couture fashion industry as well as focusing on fair trade and the use of reclaimed materials. How do you continue to ensure transparency in the supply chain?

Lucy: Couture is the perfect model for sustainability: low-volume production, hand craftsmanship and high-quality materials. The One Dress collective couture project has allowed me to really showcase the supply chain and its value to my customers. I utilized organic cotton and Peace Silk (a nonviolent silk that is produced without killing the moth) and, as always, sourced from producers I have visited and verified in person. The embroidery was crafted with vintage or reclaimed violet yarns, and I worked directly with local women artisans in Brazil, India, Kenya and the UK, whom I supported with training in haute couture techniques.

Additionally, I aim to support the artisans and sustainable suppliers I work with, beyond my creations, by offering consultancy and introduction services to other designers. My aim has always been to change the industry for the better. From the start, I made sure we had a clear ethical policy, which we are currently updating as we move with innovation, new ideas and current understandings.

Fueled by a demand for transparency, what role does consumer awareness play in shaping policies related to sustainable practices in the fashion industry?

Lucy: In the early days of my label, customers would find me because I was the only designer doing what I do sustainably. Now, there are so many “sustainable” brands, and it’s very hard to differentiate between the greenwashers and the brands with integrity.

I’ve had customers approach me after discovering that a brand initially perceived as sustainable wasn’t so, after a bit of research. The demand for sustainable goods is increasing, and policies that provide customers with transparent information are making it easier for consumers to be informed.

Recent European laws now mandate designers to provide more transparent information. At Tammam, we have worked with Piconext to create Digital Product Passports for the ESA x Tammam collection, using blockchain technology. 

Melanie: Many U.S. consumers have lost confidence in “sustainable,” “environmentally friendly,” “recycled/recyclable,” “green” or “net zero emissions” claims, due to the lack of uniform definitions for these terms. To many, these terms seem subjective or entirely devoid of meaning due to overuse. The result is a noisy marketplace where brands implementing effective measures to reduce their environmental impact may be overshadowed by the cacophony of vague and unsupported green claims. 

Recent surveys have indicated that consumers also struggle to discern the ethical or responsible nature of specific clothing products. Brands that create a narrative, tracing the story of the product’s environmental impact along the entire supply chain, from source to consumer, will benefit not only from a legal standpoint (well-documented claim substantiation) but also from increased consumer loyalty and brand trust. Innovative technological resources like digital product passports (coming into effect in the EU) can track and store this information in a transparent manner.

With the growing prevalence of greenwashing in fashion and other industries, what steps should luxury brands take to address sustainability claims and promote transparency?

Lucy: Greenwashing is quite easy to spot at the moment. If a brand is doing something good, you can be pretty certain they will talk about it, whereas vague claims are usually a cover for bad practice. Brands need to keep investing in sustainability strategies, monitor supply chains and consider regenerative and degrowth business models. Saving the planet is good for business in the long term.

Melanie: Brands face increasingly higher risks of class action litigation and regulatory actions for false or misleading claims touting the environmental benefits or attributes of a product or service. While the use of “sustainable,” together with related terms like “environmentally friendly,” “recycled” and “green,” has increased significantly in the past several years, these terms still do not have uniform legal definitions in the U.S.

However, new guidance is on the horizon. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is in the process of updating its Green Guides, which identify the types of environmental claims the FTC may find deceptive under Section 5 of the FTC Act. Similarly, the European Parliament is collaborating with the Greenwashing Directive and the proposed Green Claims Directive to standardize rules in the EU/ European Economic Area. 

In anticipation of these significant pending regulatory and legislative updates, brands should review the proposed new guidance and initiate internal governance processes to identify gaps and outline steps to align existing practices with the proposed requirements. Brands should also implement supply chain protocols, including clear contractual obligations, supplier education and certification, and meaningful audit rights to support claims substantiation from sourcing through to end consumer. 

Perhaps most importantly, it’s crucial for brands to communicate environmental claims precisely, avoiding vague terms and qualifying terms where necessary. Some regulators, like the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority, are employing AI to identify noncompliant ads for further action. Precision in word choice is essential, and brands should exercise caution in using the color green, “green” words in names, and nature images in advertising without a well-documented sustainability story.

Looking to the future, how can the fashion industry and legal counsel collaborate to create more transparent, sustainable products?

Lucy: Making sustainability claims can be risky for designers, especially with the new and upcoming legislation. My next One Dress project, PLANET, aims to be a piece of activist fashion; it will be created by a range of incredibly skilled artisans who will be credited with the project, and it will be owned by many people. My collaborative couture concept was developed to ensure work for artisans while creating minimal product and zero waste. The industry deeply needs initiatives like this to support the livelihoods of workers and promote regenerative methods of production. Collaboration between the industry and legal counsel can ensure these ideas are regulated and protected.

Melanie: Witnessing the spate of litigation in recent years, as well as the negative PR surrounding greenwashing, many brands and designers succumb to greenhushing to avoid the risk of a greenwashing claim or accusation. However, greenhushing is not an optimal outcome for the brand, designer or consumers seeking to make ethical and responsible purchases. This trend may also disproportionately impact minority-owned brands as well as other small businesses.  

To combat many of these risks, brands and designers can proactively coordinate with legal counsel early in the product life cycle to trace and document supply chains and craft precise, transparent advertising claims and copy. This will help effectively communicate the brand’s or designer’s value proposition and commitment to sustainability without overstating any positive environmental impact.