What is greenwashing in fashion?
As awareness about the unsustainable practices within the fashion industry grows, many brands are increasing their efforts to improve how they dress us. But changing a global industry takes time, and while better ways of doing things – from the treatment of the makers to the environmental impact of clothing us – are put in place, many brands are highlighting the efforts they are making, and glossing over the efforts they haven’t made or can’t yet make. This isn’t to say that their ‘hearts’ aren’t in the right place, but it can be confusing, as it was with the early years of natural beauty.
Some fashion brands look to be capitalising on the trend for more conscious consumption, employing ‘green’ marketing techniques to cast themselves in a positive light. In other cases, greenwashing in fashion diverts attention away from unethical and environmentally damaging practices, such as child labour and pollution.
Are these companies committed to investing widely in sustainable practices? Or is their effort going into carefully chosen words for marketing campaigns around a single sustainability initiative?
How can you tell when a fashion brand is greenwashing?
As responsible shoppers we all want to do the right thing, so how do we know if a brand that claims positive social and environmental impact is legitimate?
It’s a real challenge to discern between brands that are actually reducing their impact, and those that are highlighting a single change to appeal to conscious consumers, when we are bombarded with sustainable, green and eco messaging. Larger companies, in particular, have dedicated sustainability teams and publish lengthy reports on their strategies and initiatives often avoiding specificity… So it pays to question everything.
How to Recognise Greenwashing in Fashion
A common greenwashing technique used in the fashion industry is when a company launches an environmental program or product while its core business remains unsustainable. Brands with a business model built on encouraging constant consumption of low cost products, leading to disposability and a throwaway culture, cannot be considered ethical or sustainable.
More than half of fast fashion clothing is disposed of in under a year, with the majority ending up in landfill. In the UK alone it’s estimated we send £140m worth of clothing to landfill annually. Not only a waste of clothes, but also the resources used to make them. Beware of greenwashing when brands talk about reducing their packaging waste or using renewable energy in their headquarters without addressing the impacts in their supply chain or changing their core business models.
Fashion brands across all levels of the market are releasing ‘conscious’ or ‘eco’ collections, which contain items made from sustainable materials such as organic cotton, recycled fibres or lyocell (made from trees). This sounds great, however it pays to look beyond the ‘conscious’ hangtag. Is their core business sustainable? These brands rely heavily on their eco collections to promote how sustainable they are, without telling us anything about how and where the garments are made.
“If clothes fall apart after a couple of wears because of low quality material, or they’re made in poor conditions in developing countries where the workers earn less than a living wage, are they truly sustainable?” questions Sustainability Consultant Jacinta FitzGerald.
For some brands, their sustainable, organic or recycled products only make up a small percentage of their overall collection and yet it features heavily in their marketing. While it takes a large company time to pivot in a more responsible direction, it still remains that if brands are actually sustainable, the majority (if not all) of their products should be responsibly made. Otherwise, it’s just greenwashing.
Take Back & Instore Recycling
Another example relates to clothing collection bins in stores. Many brands now offer instore ‘recycling’ programs for you to return your old clothing and in some cases get a discount voucher for a new purchase. But this too needs to be questioned. Sometimes it can be legitimate, other times not so much.
While appearing to recycle boosts a brands sustainability credentials, at the same time this is encouraging more consumption. At first glance, recycling your used clothing could be considered a good initiative, however the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that less than 1% of clothing is actually recycled to make new clothing, with only 15% being reused in any way.
In 2016, Journalist Lucy Siegle calculated that it would take H&M up to 12 years to use just 1,000 tons of clothing waste with current textile fibre recycling technology – the same amount it was then selling in just 48 hours. While taking back clothing is a step in the right direction, using the word recycling so loosely (down-cycling would be more accurate) to encourage buying more is greenwashing.
Talking vs. Doing
If a brand talks about ensuring their workers are paid at least the minimum wage in the country of manufacture, they are doing the very least that is required by law, and don’t deserve to be congratulated. It’s the law. Many countries have a minimum wage, and it is the legal lowest wage a company can pay its workers. If a company says it is paying its workers a living wage, it pays to scrutinise the fine print. Some brands define a living wage as meeting “minimum wage in country of manufacture”. Oxfam however, along with many industry organisations, define a living wage as “sufficient to afford a decent standard of living for the worker and her or his family, including food, housing, healthcare, clothing, transportation, utilities, childcare, education, discretionary money and provision for unexpected events.”
In Bangladesh, where wages are some of the lowest, the minimum wage sits at less than a third living wage levels. Using the words ‘Living Wages’ when you mean minimum wages, which keep garment workers in a cycle of poverty, counts as greenwashing.
How transparent are they, really? It’s easy to make vague claims of being ethical or environmentally friendly; it’s a lot harder to implement this across a supply chain. Ideally brands will have specific information on the kinds of materials they use, their factories and what kinds of policies and programs they have to ensure fair wages, safety and environmental protection. The amount of information brands share can be a helpful tool in determining their credibility.
The supply chain within clothing manufacturing is complicated. A brand may have employed the services on one company who then passes the work to another without the brand’s knowledge. Even brands that do give details may not be as genuine as they seem. Specificity is key. “We’re doing these specific things to reduce our impact” is a far stronger signal than the vague “we try to reduce our impact”. If the brand does not have this information readily available, do they answer your questions? If a brand doesn’t know its own supply chain, how can it claim to be ethical?
How to Avoid Greenwashing in Fashion
In a nutshell, you want to look for discrepancies between what a brand is saying and what they’re doing. It always pays to look past the marketing language designed to appeal to your emotions and ask your own questions. One of the greatest advantages we have as consumers today is the availability of information and direct access allowing us to communicate with brands.
Knowledge is power so do your research and trust your instinct. Look for claims that are backed up by standards, like GOTS certified organic and fairtrade, and avoid generic terms like sustainable and eco-friendly that lack specific meaning. Seek out fashion brands that are looking beyond the most easily achievable and easily marketable sustainability issues, and tackling the complex and challenging issues deep in their supply chains.
It is likely that no brand will be perfect, but check for the areas that resonate with your own ethos – start from what your main concerns are and then tick off as many requirements that are meaningful to you, whether it be vegan, workers’ rights or environmental impact. Meanwhile, we will continue to hunt down the brands that are doing better, so you have a choice.