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Sustainable Fashion: Green or Greenwashing?

With the rise of conscious capitalism, companies are profiting through greenwashing leaving consumers at risk of deception.

The green movement is flourishing as more and more brands adopt the sustainable fashion trend. Some are genuinely reinventing themselves to become sustainable while others appeal to customers as being eco-conscious while the vast profit is generated through an exploitive, cheap production process. In fact, they are greenwashing.

Greenwashing is a form of corporate disinformation. Coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westerveld , the term greenwashing refers to practices that mislead the public on the company’s ecological or social responsibility, often in the form of overstating their ethical and environmental efforts. Westerveld was stunned by the hypocrisy of a hotel that encouraged guests to reuse towels as part of their efforts to reduce water usage, while simultaneously expanding its grounds further destroying the local environment. The limited access to information and the unrestricted advertising enabled companies to market themselves as environmental agents, as they were engaging in environmentally unsustainable practices.

The fashion industry is the third largest polluting industry in the world. Many brands claim to reduce their environmental impact while in fact their practices remain damaging to the planet. HnM created Conscious Choice, a collection advertised as sustainable and “created with a little extra consideration for the planet.” Large fast fashion retailers may use partially recycled fabrics for their products, referring to them as’ eco-friendly’ or ‘ethical’. Such terms have no legal significance, and barely engage with surface-level sustainability. These products are produced in factories that use large quantities of fossil fuels.

Fast fashion brands claim that eco-friendly collections are made from biodegradable or environmentally friendly materials, like organic cotton or recycled polyester, in factories that offset their CO2 emissions. Using eco-friendly or recycled material and dyes is certainly a step in the direction of a more sustainable production process, but cheaper and faster production will never be sustainable. Fast fashion creates excessive waste and encourages consumerism and overconsumption.

The most significant loophole is the lack of a clear definition of what constitutes a sustainable practice. Brands take advantage of this ambiguity and use vague, broad terms such as ‘recycled’, ‘green’, ‘plant-based’, ‘reduced emissions’, ‘carbon-neutral’, ‘circular’, ‘natural fibers’ or ‘eco-vegan leather’. It might be vegan, but it is certainly not sustainable and natural is not always eco-friendly.

In 2021, Changing Markets Foundation released a report that analyzed green claims from 38 different brands. Results show that 59% of sustainability claims advertised by those fashion brands were unsubstantiated. The study also shows that many brands claim their clothes are recyclable despite the absence of  recycling technologies.

So why do fashion companies use greenwashing, instead of making significant changes?

Caring for the environment is a trending issue and the green business is booming while simultaneously being cheaper and easier.

Presenting a green image is a profitable strategic marketing tactic used to increase sales and to differentiate the brand from its competitors. It is very challenging for consumers to evaluate the accuracy of an environmental claim and that is one reason why greenwashing persists. Greenwashing is a market opportunity that taps into the affective domain of consumers to influence behaviour. Most companies associate their products with environmental images such as green plants, green fields, or animals. Such products have a hidden trade-off: the product may be recyclable but it has been manufactured in unethical and inhumane working conditions.

Fast fashion can never be sustainable. In 2017, the Copenhagen Fashion Summit reported that fashion is responsible for 92 million tons of solid waste dumped in landfills each year and is responsible for producing 20% of global wastewater and 10% of global carbon emissions, more than the emissions of all international flights and maritime shipping combined. By definition, fast fashion is based on a cyclical model of consumption and waste, while sustainability attempts to disrupt such systems. The two are contradictory. Coupled with an enormous textile waste, fashion brands produce a small range of sustainable items while they still largely profit from unsustainable products. HnM attempts to encourage a circular economy by introducing Re:Wear, “a space to buy and sell previously owned (and loved!) styles”. However, the initiative does not compensate for the 3 billion garments produced by HnM every year.

The fashion industry has not become more sustainable, despite the exponential growth in the number of products labeled as ‘sustainable’ over the last few years. Rather, there is a massive growth in overconsumption leading to an increase in carbon emissions, water use, and a growing reliance on synthetic materials. The main problem with greenwashing is that it tricks consumers into believing that the industry is more sustainable than it really is.

It can be overwhelmingly challenging for consumers to identify greenwashing. For instance, one could check the percentage of ‘eco-friendly’ products that are made with recycled material or natural degradable fibers like viscose and if there are any hidden trade-offs in the sourcing and production process. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has warned consumers about green marketing. The agency protects consumers from unethical and deceptive practices. The FTC developed the Green Guides in 1992 and revised them in 2012 to help businesses avoid deceiving consumers with misleading claims. The WTF: What The Fabric guides explains the sustainability of different fabrics such as bamboo, leather, hemp, linen, and others as well as the social and environmental consequences of each material.

Should you buy fast fashion brands’ ‘eco’ collections? There is no right or wrong. You can consult the Fashion Transparency Index 2020 for information on the biggest global fashion brands and retailers. You an also check Good On You, the platform which rates fashion brands on their performance across three key areas: people, planet, and animals.

Policies and practices need to change throughout the supply chain, as profits fall and costs rise. The seed of progress is there and a greener future is inevitable.

Elissar Gerges
Contributor at The Commoner | + posts

Elissar Gerges has more than 10 years of experience as an AP and IBDP Biology teacher and Biology head of the department. She holds a Master of Science in Education from Walden University, a Master of Education in Curriculum Studies and Teacher Development from the University of Toronto, and a Doctor of Education (EdD) in Educational Leadership from Western University, Canada. Elissar’s research focus is on learning communities, team leadership, instructional leadership, and integrating citizenship in science education. She is a strong advocate of science media literacy to enable all students, as active citizens, to critically evaluate science in the media to make informed decisions.

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