Greenwashing In the Fashion Industry

While sharing her cover for Vogue Scandinavia on Twitter – environmental activists Gretta Thunberg commented:

The fashion industry is a huge contributor to the climate – and ecological emergency, not to mention it’s impact on countless workers and communities who are being exploited around the world in order for some to enjoy fast fashion that many treat as disposable.

Gretta Thunberg

Eco-conscious, environmentally friendly, sustainable — these are just some of the buzzwords being used to sell the green credentials of brands & corporations. Consumers look towards retailers & brands for these environmentally friendly choices to be available at the same level of pricing and availability as their current use to- something many brands are finding a challenge

As a part of the fashion industry, I have noticed that while the growing number of companies responding to the climate crisis is hugely positive, it can be difficult to know whether you’re being a responsible consumer or buying into greenwashing.

The biggest perpetrator of these tactics is the fast fashion industry where the demand is the highest but thanks to greenwashing the topic of sustainability is seen as a way out of the Covid 19 crisis – in order to stay afloat & generate sales in the aftermath of the pandemic. 

Greta Thunberg continued to state:’ Many make it look as if the fashion industry is starting to take responsibilities, spending fantasy amounts on campaigns portraying themselves as sustainable”, “ethical”, “climate neutral” or “fair” But let’s be clear: This is nothing but pure greenwash.” 

So how can we spot when we, as consumers, are being Greenwashed? How can we recognise it? And most importantly -what can we do to prevent it?

So, what is Greenwashing? 

Greenwashing is the underhanded strategy of providing false or misleading information on how a company’s products are more environmentally sound. Greenwashing is considered an unsubstantiated claim, created to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly. These tactics tend to be deployed by fashion-based entities who are neither ethical or environmentally conscious – And unfortunately, they are becoming extremely clever at this. So how do you spot the not so eco-friendly wool being pulled over our eyes?

For example, you find two identical pants at a fast fashion retailer. One with a tag stating ‘sustainable’ with all the visual cues etc. The other does not provide any information on how it is made. Chances are high you will purchase the first option. It adds reassurance & morality to your purchase if priced the same or even marked-up due to its ‘sustainable’ message. Fast fashion brands are extremely aware of this consumer psychology. Retailers want to add these claims to their product but cannot risk raising their prices too much as the main draw to their business is the pricing and affordability of their products. They cannot openly lie about their product so they look for loopholes & creative phrasing into deceiving consumers. That deception implies that they are acting environmentally responsible when they are not – that is the textbook example of Greenwashing. 

How Can We Recognise It?

Look at how information is presented to you – Photoshoots in sunny fields, ocean sides, aspirational natural hues, green tones, imperfect textures, smiling faces of locals and key words that evoke a sense of nature, care and purity in choosing their products. Along with this many of these retailers release smartly versed mission statements and descriptions to entice consumers. And with the money & resources at their disposal the tactics will continue to get more and more devious in the process.

Phrases such as ‘Every piece in the collection is made from sustainably sourced material such as 100% organic cotton.’ Statements like this can be misleading. What does sustainably sourced mean? How has it grown? How is it farmed or manufactured? A clear definition is not provided allowing our own minds to fill in the blanks to create a more positive experience due to word association. It could also potentially imply on face value that every garment is exclusively constructed with 100% organic cotton when there could be only a share of cotton in that garment. It is 100% organic cotton but it does not mean 100% of the garment is made of that sustainable material. Some garments may be made of multiple fibre contents so it’s harder to identify the sustainable one, as well as one which matches the percentages promised. 

Even phrases such as ‘100% Sustainable’ are used so often to simplify the connection to the consumers when in fact it has no clear definition or standard from a legal point of view. Is it environmental? Better conditions for factory workers? Better farming practices? It is pretty deceiving and too vague.

‘Reducing carbon emissions’ is a popular statement but if you make less product one year or from that one factory and even split your production across multiple factories you have already reduced emissions from a legal sense – the company has made no changes to their practices. ‘Reducing our carbon footprint by x% this year’ – unit produced is conveniently not mentioned. If you make more units the percentages shift.

A popular phrase currently is ‘Vegan Leather’. Another term used which has very loose legal definitions and standards. Vegan leather implies on face value that no animal was harmed in the construction of this material – which we associate with positive aspects of our consumerism being less harmful to our planet etc. The specifics are ignored. Is it pineapple / mushroom leather for example which is great for the environment but when usually not explained it tends to imply materials such as PVC or PU [as its plastic not animal based therefore vegan by legal argument] can release micro plastics into water when washed as well as the other chemical processes which were used to make it can be harmful to planet and people. Recycled leathers do exist which are more planet friendly so again be on the lookout for those distinctions.  

What can you do to help prevent it?

You can see it is important we look beyond the label. When transparency is not offered what can we do? Have a look at what they’re telling you as well as what they’re not telling you. If you are on a product description page to see what your garments are made of. When a certain product is made responsibly company’s want to mention it but pay attention to that information. Don’t be afraid to ask questions as a consumer, they value your business.  A company with transparency will have no problem disclosing that information. 

When in store simply check the care label usually found on the inside side seam of all garments. It has to be there by law. 

Learn to spot words that are too vague with no clear explanation – Words like ‘Green’, ‘Pure’, ‘Sustainable’, ‘Eco- Friendly’,‘Conscious’ etc have no legal definition. If they do not explain what that means then it’s not enough. Organic can be checked and verified on products as there are certain standards that the materials must face to be classified as organic such as GOTS (global organic textile standard) for example. There are many more certifications out there but areas of responsibly sourced materials will meet industry standards.

Look for alternative ways of updating your wardrobe. One of my favourite ways –buy vintage or second- hand. Buying second-hand items means that you’ve obtained an item that might have ended up in a landfill. By limiting our new purchases and opting for recycled or used items instead, we’ll be helping the environment a great deal by reducing the toxic waste and harmful materials that are typically disposed of in oceans or landfills. A lot of second-hand items are far from nearing the end of their lifespan and they usually come at a much lower price; buying these items ensures that they are used to their full capacity, giving you a great bang for your buck.

Without question, the fashion industry has a vast impact on the environment. It is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Apart from high water consumption & carbon footprint, it makes wide spread use of chemicals that are not only hazardous to the environment, and all living creatures. Working conditions & practices of farmers, manufacturers and everyone throughout the entire process are now under the microscope as consumers want transparency. Key consumers no longer carry the don’t ask – don’t tell mentality – our choices must carry a conscious as well as consequence.

The COVID-19 crisis and its consequential economic shutdowns has created unparalleled challenges for the fashion industry. Declining consumer spending & disrupted supply chains. It has upended the lives of billions. It has been disastrous for the vulnerable, exposing the inequalities of the world, and the precarious system that the fashion industry operates in. The ugly truth is on display for all to see and much more is needed to be done.

So, can the industry steer change? – And how can we steer change as consumers? These are big questions for anyone to wrap their heads around. There is no perfect answer. No instant fix. But every step we take aids in setting the agenda and the demand for reform in the fashion industry. 

There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to this topic. It’s a growing discussion. Many in the industry want to be on the right path to sustainability and will slowly transition into improving parts of their business. It’s a game of two halves but it will ultimately come down to cost vs consumer demand. 

The pandemic directed some businesses to prioritise survival, it also thrust sustainable principles and working practices into the spotlight – particularly for consumers. And as consumers, creatives & other individuals involved in this industry it will come down to all of us – our attitudes, awareness & reflection of our choices to ensure the chaos of 2020 serves as the catalyst for a brighter 2021 and beyond.

For more information check out www.fashionrevolution.org for more information and how to get involved or to learn more.

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