Greenwashing in the Fashion Industry: This Kind of Green Doesn’t Come Out in the Wash.
In the past two decades, fast fashion has risen to prominence and with it a dark side of harm to people and the planet. But in 2021 when eco-friendly is such a ‘trend’, surely fast fashion brands want to do what they can to alleviate their role in the issue, especially since, according to The World Economic Forum, the fashion industry is the joint third most polluting industry. With initiatives like H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’, its Garment Collection programme or ‘Primark Cares’, it’s beginning to look like the tide is turning...
Or so they’d have you believe.
While the phrase ‘Greenwashing’ may have been around since the 1980s, in recent years it has become more prominent in everyday discourse about climate change and commercial industries. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, greenwashing is ‘disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.’ It’s a phrase that can be applied to all sorts of companies including Shell, Nespresso and McDonald’s to name just a few.
When it comes to greenwashing in the fashion industry, there are a number of techniques that brands may use to try and convince you they are helping the planet. One major example is H&M’s recycling scheme whereby shoppers can ‘recycle’ their old clothes in an H&M branch and will receive a £5 voucher to spend in-store. On the face of it, it sounds great - H&M taking it upon themselves to keep clothes from ending up in landfill among the approx £140m worth of clothes that currently end up there every year? Amazing! But according to author and environmentalist Elizabeth Cline, only about 1% of the clothes ‘recycled’ in H&M actually get recycled into new garments: that's 99% ending up in landfill. Even the company that handles the donations on H&M's behalf, I:Collect, admits that only 35% of everything it collects both from H&M and elsewhere is recycled and more often ends up as carpet padding, painters' cloths or insulation. It seems there is still a big gap in the loop that H&M is claiming to be closing.
Of course, this is just one example. Recognising greenwashing can be hard because it's designed to be. Marketing is designed to encourage you to buy, and if lies about sustainability will get money in their pockets, brands will do it. No matter the claims it is unlikely that fast fashion will ever truly be sustainable or environmentally friendly due to the low prices and quick turnaround of new stock, but if you do want to check on a brand’s impact compared to their claims there are ways to do so.
Firstly a great potential place to start is a brand rating website or app like good on you. They rate each fashion brand based on its impact on:
People, looking at policies and practices that impact workers in the supply chain such as child or forced labour, worker safety, and living wage.
The planet, such as their resource use and waste management including carbon emissions and water pollution.
Animals, considering how the brand traces the animal products it uses and its policies regarding animal welfare.
Good on you collect over 500 data points per brand to ensure that the information they provide is correct and combine all three ratings to give each brand an overall rating going from ‘We Avoid’ to ‘Great’. This information is designed to help you be a conscious consumer when it comes to fashion and covers brands from across the globe. Remake also has a similar brand directory if you want to compare different sources.
Language is everything or at least fashion brands make it seem that way. Look out for words like ‘sustainable’, ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘green’ - they are not your friend. Instead, look for numbers. Check websites for quantitative targets and whether or not the brands share their progress to reach those. Although just the presence of number targets is not the end, if they have a sustainable plan section on their website or document be sure to read the fine print to ensure you know exactly how they plan to ‘reduce carbon emissions’ because it might just be that they are cutting them at head office. We know it is a pain but it's the best way to make sure everything is what it seems.
So a fashion brand has a ‘sustainable’ collection, great. But what about the rest of their products? They are still likely to be making more profit from their unsustainable products than the ones they claim are. Therefore they are still upholding the fast fashion industry to make their money, not working to dismantle it as is needed for complete sustainability.
If a brand is truly ethical then check what they are paying their factory workers, not just ‘minimum wage’ but a wage they can actually live on as well as a safe working environment. Minimum wage can leave families starving without a roof over their heads - that is not ethical. As well as that, the conditions of the factories that big fashion brands use are not great with the worst recent examples being the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse, which resulted in over 1000 dead and 2500 injured, and workers in a Myanmar factory that supplies Primark were locked in to stop them joining this year’s protests. You can check the annual Fashion Revolution Transparency Index, Fair Wear Foundation and the Clean Clothes Campaign for more research and info on which brands are not supporting their workers.
These are just four ways to look for greenwashing, but as the world continues to change there is no doubt that brands will shift how they market sustainable products so it’s important to just be vigilant. If something seems like marketing spiel then take a moment, trust your instincts and see what else you can find out before clicking pay. None of us is going to catch the tricks every time, but doing what you can is always better than nothing at all.
When it comes to ethical fashion brands the prices are never going to compare to those of Boohoo or Primark, but you are paying for quality and the knowledge that you are supporting a business that is focused on helping the planet. Here are just a few, but there are so many doing the work to make us all look badass while still helping save the planet.
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For that bling…
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Deck out your whole wardrobe…
Strut your stuff…
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Silly Girl Club