One of the most popular eco-friendly fashion brands in the world has been slapped with a watchdog warning after an inquiry found that it was likely misleading customers about how sustainable it really is.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) issued the warning to ethical label Matt & Nat, a pioneer of vegan bags and shoes that boasts about former brand ambassadors Fearne Cotton and Natalie Portman.
The retailer was warned it should not "exaggerate" its use of recycled material, after the ASA received a complaint that a Matt & Nat print advertisement had misrepresented the brand's green credentials.
The complaint concerned a flyer with the image of a backpack made from one of the most environmentally damaging plastics, polyvinyl chloride or PVC, but with the tagline, "Vegan.Cruelty Free.Recycled" suggesting that this bag in particular, and the brand in general, is eco-friendly.
The complainant said this was deceptive given that only the bag's lining is made of recycled plastic bottles, while the tag stated the bag itself was made of 100 percent PVC.
A case officer at the ASA said: “We have concluded that [the Matt & Nat] flyer was likely to have breached the advertising rules we apply and we have taken steps to address this.
"We have explained [the complainant's] concerns to the advertiser and provided guidance to them on the areas that require attention, together with advice on how to ensure that their advertising complies with the codes."
The codes - 3.1, 3.3, 3.7 and 3.11 - state advertisements must not mislead consumers by omitting or hiding material information, presenting it in an ambiguous manner, or exaggerating the performance of a product. Advertisers must also be able to prove any claims being made.
A spokesman for the ASA added: “We told the advertiser to ensure that in future its ads do not exaggerate the amount of recycled material in its products. In addition, we set out the relevant advertising code clauses that apply. And we highlighted our guidance on Misleading Advertising and Substantiation.”
The complainant also shared the contents of a leaked email from Matt & Nat’s customer care. It crucially revealed the brand's extensive but unclarified use of PVC in two main collections – information that they felt contradicts the retailer's branding as an eco-friendly label.
'The email noted Matt & Nat's Dwell and Vintage collections are made of PVC, with only linings made out of recycled plastic bottles. According to this information, in August, 65 percent of all the bags and shoes sold on its website as eco-friendly would not qualify as such.
At the time of publication, Matt & Nat had not commented on this story.
The retailer's use of toxic PVC and lack of transparency and has been called out by environmental campaigners.
Greenpeace stressed that for a fashion label to be sustainable it must not use any PVC at all. A spokesperson said: “PVC contains toxic additives and is difficult to recycle, making it harmful for people and the planet. It is made with chlorine which is very energy intensive and from ethylene, a petroleum product.
“Brands which seek to be truly eco-friendly must completely avoid the use of PVC. It is also important that only products made wholly from recycled materials are described as ‘recycled’. Customers trying to shop ethically need to know they can trust retailer product descriptions.”
The animal charity PETA, that has previously endorsed Matt & Nat for being eco-friendly, has also stressed that the use of PVC does not qualify as sustainable.
Yvonne Taylor, director of corporate projects at PETA, said: "PETA commends all brands that use animal-free materials. However, with the huge array of animal-free, eco-friendly vegan leathers now available, we agree that there is no need for any brand to still use PVC."
The complaint added that Matt & Nat states on its website that “PU is less harmful for the environment than PVC and we make it a point to use it whenever possible”. This gives the impression that PVC is only sparingly used whereas the email reveals otherwise.
The complaint argued that Matt & Nat’s tagline, “Vegan.Cruelty Free.Recycled”, gives the false impression that all of the retailer's products are recycled.
The revelations in the email and the ASA's ruling are important given the retailer's position as a leader in the ethical, eco-friendly fashion world.
Matt and Nat was founded in Canada in 1995 as a vegan brand, selling shoes and bags that did not make use of animal products. However, the company’s marketing strategy has evolved over the years and it now presents itself as an environmentally friendly label. Its products are sold across the world in the UK, US, Japan, Germany and Australia.
The retailer was nominated at the prestigious Canadian Arts & Fashion Awards (CAFA) awards in May, for Accessory Designer of the Year, and has been repeatedly praised in publications in the UK for its eco-friendly and vegan credentials.
Hiba Mahamadi is a freelance journalist based in London