What is greenwashing and why is everyone talking about it right now?
It seems some fashion brands aren’t being entirely transparent about the environmental claims they’re making
There’s a dark side to the sustainable fashion movement emerging. When companies make pledges to support the environment, surely as buyers, we’re bound to believe and be impressed by them. However, it seems not all of the promises they’re making are entirely honest, and it’s a practice that’s so rife, it even has its own name- greenwashing.
The popularity of sustainable fashion is undoubtedly on the rise, and it’s with good reason: the climate crisis is an issue we’re more aware of than ever, and fashion is one of its biggest culprits. Combine these stats with the rise of platforms like Depop which facilitate second-hand shopping, and overall, it’s clear that we’re all beginning to pay much more attention to our clothes’ origins and environmental impacts.
So what even is greenwashing? Here’s why it’s an issue right now, and how you can avoid it.
What is greenwashing?
“Greenwashing” is a term referring to when a brand makes false claims about their products, in order to make them seem more environmentally friendly than they actually are. They do this so that their products will appeal to a wider audience, when actually it’s just a marketing ploy to try and lure a greater number of customers in.
Brands will do this by using buzzwords like “sustainable”, “eco”, “green”, “bio”, “natural”, or even “vegan” as part of their marketing. Green coloured packaging is another common feature, or plain white labels which insinuate that the product it’s attached to is more “clean” and natural somehow.
Why is greenwashing such a big issue?
Numerous brands who greenwash will do so with a single line of “sustainable” products, whilst the rest of their business carries on operating as usual. Many people have pointed out that whilst you might be doing some good by buying a more environmentally friendly item of clothing from a brand’s “green” line, you’re still contributing to a fast fashion brand whose other products are unsustainable and mass shipped around the world, creating significant carbon emissions.
On top of this, greenwashing is misleading to the customers it draws in, and often leads to brands becoming more popular- when frankly, they don’t deserve to be. It’s also sometimes tricky to tell whether a brand is intentionally greenwashing for marketing purposes, or whether they’re perhaps just failing to realise that one sustainable line won’t undo the rest of their unsustainable practices.
The “do good, feel good” mindset many of us have possibly fuels the issue further, and might mean that we’re too quick to trust any company promising us a more responsible wardrobe. Then on the flip side, as greenwashing becomes more prominent, we might lose faith in the concept of sustainability completely.
How can we spot which brands truly are sustainable?
Subindu Garkhel, Senior Cotton and Textiles Lead for Fairtrade Foundation told The Tab: “When we buy a product, as consumers we are entitled to know that the people behind it are doing what they claim they will with our money.
“If you have done your research and you want to buy a something which gives producers a top-up payment which will benefit their community by building a school, or providing clean drinking water, for example, you want to know that’s what they are actually funding.
“The good news is there are ways you can check that what they claim is happening is actually taking place. Choose organisations which publish their criteria, are transparent about their supply chains and get their schemes independently verified. If no-one is checking up on them, their claims may mean very little.
“For example, Fairtrade sets business, environmental, social and financial standards which everyone in the supply chain from farmers and growers to the businesses and sellers, have to follow to be able to display the Fairtrade mark. These standards are independently audited”.
Garkhel also added: “If you are buying a garment made of Fairtrade cotton, it will have been grown and harvested by farmers paid the Fairtrade minimum price to protect them from market fluctuations and the additional Fairtrade Premium payments to support their communities, and they will choose how it is spent. Premium is used to fund education, health, environmental and energy projects”.
One good way of checking a brand’s environmental impact is using the Fashion Revolution Transparency Index, a tool which takes 250 major fashion brands and gives them a ranking based on how much they choose to disclose on their social and environmental policies, practices and impacts.
Does transparent always mean “good” though? Simply put, no, not always. In April, H&M boasted on Instagram that it had been ranked the highest in the 2020 transparency ranking. Although it currently has a “Conscious” line of clothing, the brand has been widely called out on social media by people who have pointed out that an international brand like this can never truly be sustainable, simply because of the massive numbers of items they’re churning out every day.
Cotton, regardless of whether it’s organic or not is a hugely labour intense material. According to the H&M website, “To qualify for a green hangtag, a product must contain at least 50 per cent sustainable materials, such as organic cotton and recycled polyester”. However, when it comes specifically to cotton, it adds: “The only exception is recycled cotton, which can only make up 20 per cent of a product due to quality restraints. We are, however, working with innovations to increase this share as soon as possible”.
That said, we should still try and be cautious when it comes to brands that are ranking low on the index, and question why exactly they’re choosing not to disclose huge amounts of information about the way they’re making their products.
Alternatively, the “Good on You” app is a good way of checking out a brand’s reputation when it comes to sustainability: it gives ratings to thousands of brands using things like their labour practices and energy outputs as indicators. Then too, Futerra has a good online resource with information on how you can spot greenwashing in real life, showing the sorts of language brands who do it might use to try and hook their customers in.
The bottom line is, we probably are all a bit guilty of believing every claim a brand makes- because let’s face it, we’ve got no natural reason to believe they’re lying. However, if we start questioning exactly what they mean when they say they’re “sustainable” or that their employees manufacturing their items have “good working conditions”, at least we can say we’re doing our bit to try and avoid being drawn in by such damaging industry lies.