Greenwashing, a term coined in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, is the use of marketing to portray an organisation’s products, activities or policies as environmentally friendly when they are not. Decades on, fashion’s adoption of greenwashing is reaching ever more sophisticated heights. “GREEN” is an ambiguous word, that can mean something different to everyone who uses or hears it, but. consumers and companies are attracted to it.
There are many companies that employ Greenwashing techniques to cover for their environmentally destructive business operations. So, how can you tell when a fashion brand is greenwashing? Here are some common ways:
Producing clothes that are ‘timeless’ and ‘reject passing trends’ is great, but if the clothes are cheap, mass-produced and of low quality, they’re no better than trendy fast fashion because they’re still heading for the scrap heap sooner rather than later. Slow fashion should be mindful of every stage of the supply chain including the materials they use and the suppliers they work with.
Brands are more or less free to set targets for their environmental impact that are comfortable to achieve, sound good, and may or may not be impactful. For example, reduced emissions by 50% by a particular year may just be a result of decreased subsidiaries or production facilities.
Be careful, if a fast fashion brand says they have achieved a particular target and perhaps reduced emissions: Yes, you used 15% less energy to produce a single t-shirt, but you’re producing ten times as many t-shirts! Sometimes it's easy to get caught up in word-play.
Running one office on solar energy is a good measure but not one that significantly reduces the whole company’s carbon footprint. The supply chain should be one of the first things companies address in order to reduce their carbon footprint, as this is the largest source of carbon emissions.
Production facilities, transport and shipping methods, and the environmental impacts of source materials should all be looked at.
A brand’s sustainability report should show exactly how it is addressing supply chain emissions, for it to claim that it’s reducing its carbon footprint.
Recycled and minimal packaging is not enough as a sign that brands are reducing waste. Again, these gestures alone do not make up for production processes that cause huge amounts of waste and pollution. However, if a brand is truly addressing textile waste while also minimising packaging – then that is a win on both fronts!
When you see a brand talk about their labour standards and the living wage, be aware this is a hard factor to regulate. Workers can be overlooked, poorly treated and their health can be put at risk. That’s why full supply chain transparency is essential – ethical brands should disclose the names and locations of all the factories involved in the production of their products.
I’m directly targeting, you guessed it right, H&M here. The corporate sustainability community applauded H&M when it launched its recycling initiative intended to help cut waste in the fast-fashion world.
So far, the company has collected about 34,000 tons of waste, or the weight of 178 million t-shirts, according to Anna Gedda, H&M’s head of sustainability. Only 0.1% of what is donated is woven into new material and some of what is wearable, goes to charity. What happens to the rest?
Before you celebrate the new ‘organics’ or ‘sustainable’ range launch by your favourite fast-fashion brand, understand that a fast-fashion store can’t become ethical from making just one collection organic (and without certification, at that). Unless the brand has set clear targets to increase its ethical range to more than 50% of their products, or are working towards making their whole business ethical – it’s greenwashing.
“Organic cotton” is a fancy term to use but are the ones saying this also looking at wastewater and water use, harmful dyes, labour rights and conditions? And unless the cotton has been certified organic, it’s hard to take these claims seriously. Look out for things like Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification to know whether it’s a truly sustainable product. Also, a STeP certificate for Sustainable Textile Production is a trustworthy certification for any brand to be called sustainable.
Part of the reason brands are able to be vague about their environmental and social commitments is because of the lack of nuance and public education surrounding words like "ethical" and "sustainable". It’s up to you as the consumer to do the research and to learn the values of the companies you support. ASK QUESTIONS and don’t be fooled by greenwashing.
This article is contributed by Prachi Pearl Baptist, a student of National Institute of Fashion Technology, Chennai.