Many issues plague the fashion industry, including cheap labor, textile waste, water pollution, generated by fast fashion. In the last decade, as a result of activism and education, shoppers are becoming more environmentally aware and conscious. As shoppers increasingly embrace environmental and social issues, they now demand sustainable and ethical brands and products that align with their values.
A 2017 corporate social responsibility (CSR) communication study by Cone found that 87% of consumers view companies that advocated for social and environmental issues more positively than those that did not. In addition, 92% of consumers trust companies that support these issues (Ciochetto, 2017).
As the fashion industry struggles between its environmental impact, trendiness, and quality, a new business trend has emerged.
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing refers to the practice in which companies market products as “green” or environmentally friendly, despite these products failing to live up to those claims.
This has resulted in sustainability increasingly being used as a performative marketing strategy, rather than an actual objective. This brings into question;
Are a company's products actually sustainable, or is it label a mere marketing gimmick?
Fast fashion companies are the biggest culprits of greenwashing. In 2012, a prominent High Street player launched its 'Conscious' collection, which features clothing made with materials advertised as “more sustainable” such as 100% organic cotton or recycled polyester. However, the brand failed to provide consumers with information on how pieces from this collection were better for the environment than their other pieces.
Since there is no legal definition or way to quantify terms such as "organic," "green," "sustainable," and "ethically-made.”, companies easily use these terms on their labels.This results in a lack of accountability from these companies and provides a loose definition that can easily be misinterpreted or interpreted on the brands' terms. Moreover, fast fashion brands are also inherently unsustainable, so adding terms such as "conscious" or "green" tricks shoppers into seeing the brand as sustainable when it is not.
For as long as there remains no universal standard for measuring sustainability in fashion, it will be difficult for companies to be transparent about their sustainability claims. The onus therefore falls upon consumers to do their own research to determine whether a brand is genuinely implementing sustainable practices, or using and not just using sustainability as a technique to attract a new market of conscious customers.
So, why do brands market themselves as 'sustainable'?
Brands market themselves as ‘sustainable’ as it provides them with a competitive edge by appealing to the environmentally-conscious shopper while improving their reputation and image. Companies can also drive their profits up by selling products at a marked-up price and claiming that more money was spent on ensuring responsibility in the supply chain, therby appealing to a larger target audience who like to feel good about themselves and their purchases.
How can you avoid falling prey to Greenwashing?
Here are five ways to avoid brands that greenwash: you can also visit the website ‘Good On You,’ which provides brand ratings and information on sustainable and ethical fashion.
1) Check if the brand includes sustainability as part of its business model, rather than just an add-on.
Be cautious of sustainable capsule collections and avoid brands where only a small percentage of their business operates sustainably. Check their website and other social media platforms.
2) Make sure that sustainability claims are supported by facts and figures and backed by science.
Is there any real-world public documentation of their accomplishments or quantifiable goals? Many companies make their sustainability reports public online, allowing consumers to check if the brand is living up to its claims.
3) Look out for the brand's transparency
Are their claims easy to understand, and are they too broad? Ensure the brand provides specific evidence and descriptions on how the means are taken to reach their sustainability goals, the results they have been able to achieve. This information can easily be found with a quick search online. If not, get in contact with the brand on social media channels to determine if they are open to answering such questions.
4) Look at the primary clothing material and fabrics used and their source(s).
Are they organic or synthetic, and where are they sourced? As a rule of thumb, look for organic, recycled, undyed, or upcycled materials as they tend to indicate that the brand aims to be sustainable.
5) Double-check the clothing brand for certificates and its requirements
Examples of certificates include the Fairtrade Textiles Standard and EcoCert. These are internationally recognized accreditation systems that validate a brand’s steps towards green and ethical practices.
Ultimately, it is shoppers who have the most significant impact as their purchasing power drives the market. Hence, consumers have the power to be agents of change through their purchasing.
Therefore, we as shoppers should be more aware of the ethics of what they are buying and aim to rethink their purchases by educating ourselves. Avoiding fads, fast fashion, and overconsumption allows brands to understand that sustainability is important to them. When we make more conscious and positive choices, the fashion industry and system are impacted as a whole. They will seek to align their business with the values of their consumers to remain relevant. As a shopper who wishes to be more sustainable or eco-friendly, you can opt for clothes swapping, purchase second-hand, or from sustainable fashion brands.
Check out this podcast episode by the Conscious Style podcast to learn more about the ‘seven sins of greenwashing’ in the fashion industry!
Ciochetto, M. (2017). 2017 Cone Communications CSR Study. Cone Communications. Retrieved 23 May 2021, from https://www.conecomm.com/research-blog/2017-csr-study.