The Growing Trend Of Greenwashing In The Fashion Industry
Over the last decade, the climate has become a hot topic with initiatives being put in place around the world aimed at helping combat some of the things that are damaging our environment. We've seen the ban on plastic straws, the charge on plastic bags and clean air zones being introduced across various cities but there is a long way to go in the fight to protect the planet.
Businesses, in particular, have acknowledged the role that they play in change and one industry that has been put under the microscope for its questionable practices is the fashion industry.
It has become very apparent to fashion brands that consumers care about the environment and are more cautious than ever of when it comes to where they spend their money and the businesses that they support. They want to know where the materials are coming from, the work conditions of those who are making the clothes, the carbon footprint of the company and so on.
As a result, greenwashing has become a growing trend amongst fashion brands as an attempt to hold on to their customers and encourage eco-conscious shoppers to support them too.
This is not the case across every fashion company and there are many that are embracing sustainability and adopting more eco-friendly practices; however, there are some that are claiming to be far more green than they actually are.
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing was a term coined in 1986 by an environmentalist after he witnessed a hotel asking its guests to reuse towels in order to 'help the environment' when, in actuality, the hotel just wanted to save money by not having to wash everyone's towels.
In this case, and in the early use of the term, greenwashing referred to companies who were making decisions based on saving money or time or resources but then, when appropriate, dressing it up as being 'environmentally-friendly'.
The term can still be used in this context but has evolved into being a practice that businesses adopt to present themselves as being more sustainable than they actually are by misleading people or overstating their eco-credentials.
It's more commonly practiced than consumers may realise, especially in the fashion industry.
Why is greenwashing popular in the fashion industry?
Consumers are much more aware and conscious of where they spend their money and the impact that their purchases have on the environment. They want to know that the businesses they support are making a real effort to reduce their carbon footprint and adopt more sustainable practices even if it means having to spend a little more money.
Consequently, the more pricey fashion brands that clearly care about the planet are seeing consistent growth. The fast-fashion companies and high street brands have started to notice this and understand that the sustainability principles are what have given these more expensive brands a competitive edge.
No longer are consumers only shopping for the best deal or trendiest pieces but they are researching the brands themselves to see what they are doing to help the planet whether that means using eco-friendly materials or not mass-producing items.
This has led many fashion brands that aren't willing to invest the money or effort into actually being more sustainable to, instead, use marketing tactics and misleading language to promote themselves as being greener than they really are.
One major example of greenwashing in the fashion industry that came to light last year was the H&M Conscious line. It was revealed that this recently launched clothing line under the popular high street brand which was marketed as a green clothing line that uses organic cotton and recycled polyester, was nothing more than a marketing tactic. It used surface level terminology that completely misled consumers. Although morally wrong, it is not illegal.
The Conscious line lacked transparency and it was not made clear how this line was sustainable. Instead the company used campaign imagery featuring grass and plants and vague information about the materials used to make the clothes.
In fact, a recent study showed that 60% of sustainability claims made by 12 of the biggest European fashion brands could be classed as 'unsubstantiated'.
It could be argued that many of these brands are attempting to adopt greener practices and any small step in the right direction should be celebrated. However, there is a clear difference between a brand that uses ethical and eco-friendly practices throughout every step of their supply chain and works hard to constantly improve, and one that introduces an 'eco-friendly' line of products whilst still using methods and practices that are harming the environment at an exceedingly high rate.
Therefore, describing a brand or clothing line as sustainable should be exclusive to those that are truly doing the work.
How to identify greenwashing in fashion
Fortunately, greenwashing can be relatively easy to spot although it does involve some work on your part. Here are a few things you can do when trying to identify whether or not a fashion brand is greenwashing…
Closely assess the language being used
The problem with a lot of language associated with sustainability is that it's broad and the terms can be used in many ways, all of which are correct and accurate.
For example, a company might describe their products as eco-friendly because they are made using materials that can be recycled yet the process of harvesting, extracting or producing the material is causing a lot of harm to the environment. They are not using the term incorrectly as being recyclable can be equated to being eco-friendly but this is not painting a full and accurate picture.
Therefore, you shouldn't take any claims or words at face-value. Vegan doesn't mean sustainable, natural doesn't always mean sustainable either and green is far too vague.
If they are using this type of language and not providing more in-depth information to outline exactly why these materials are eco-friendly or what they are doing to make them 'greener' than it probably doesn't mean much.
Check the numbers
The best way to support any sustainability claims is to present the facts and figures behind them. When a business says that they are ethical when it comes to their factories, then there should also be information that further explains what they means by this. Are they paying the workers fair wages? Do they give their workers' basic rights, reasonable working hours, safe working conditions? Or, preferably, all of the above?
If a business makes any claim then you should be able to find the data behind it on the website and if you can't then it probably isn't all that it seems because a business that is truly doing good would want to shout about it.
Look for certifications
One thing that cannot be falsified are accreditations so a strong piece of evidence that can be used to support sustainability claims are certificates. When a reputable third-party assessor has given a business a certification, such as GRS or Fairtrade, it is proof that their claims are true.
Again, certificates will be displayed on the company website and will clearly point to the areas in which the brand is truly sustainable.
The packaging says a lot
The packaging that a business uses can reveal a lot about its principles. For example, excessive use of plastic, unnecessary paper and oversized cardboard boxes can often point to a brand that isn't as eco-conscious as they claim to be.
This is because packaging would be an easy place to start if you wanted to adopt more sustainable practices as a business and there is no hiding the truth when it comes to packaging because it all ends up in the hands of the customer.
Taking a holistic approach
The biggest issue with greenwashing in the fashion industry is that a brand will make a small change and latch onto that as being enough to make claims about being 'greener' and 'more sustainable'. They might, for example, remove all plastic from their packaging (which is great) but still continue with their other business practices that are in no way sustainable yet they will shout about this one change having made them an eco-conscious brand.
True sustainability is about taking a holistic approach. Protecting the environment is one important aspect but businesses also need to consider the social and economic aspects of sustainability.
They also need to set goals and make regular improvements so if this is not happening then it all points back to greenwashing.