THIS Is When You Know A Fashion Brand Is Full Of It

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
You know that woman who uses all the right feminist and enlightened vocabulary, but is still a conniving you-know-what at heart? “You need to lean in tonight and reach your full potential,” she’ll say as she dumps work on your desk at 6 p.m. Or, “I’m making space in my life for positivity,” she’ll coo when she flakes on you for the fourth time and you call her on it.

Well, that’s the way I feel about some fashion and beauty companies. They’re putting out press releases with the words “sustainable” and “artisanal,” while churning out toxic fashion that poisons the environment and exploits workers. This sort of behavior is called “greenwashing,” and consumers are getting wise to it.

Just take the sleuths behind The Fashion Law blog — they’ve made it their business to call out any company that is getting ahead of itself. In an article last month, they cautioned consumers, “Next time you see a massive PR campaign about a fast-fashion brand’s wonderful efforts, be sure to think twice. It may not be as wonderful as it seems.”

I personally think this article is a little too harsh. While the author makes a good point that the fashion industry as a whole is rife with human rights abuses and toxic materials and dyes, she has a very wide definition of greenwashing, going so far as to criticize Zara’s commitment to eliminate all discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020. That’s something that Greenpeace specifically campaigned for and celebrated!

The point is, these issues don’t neatly fall into “good” and “bad” categories. You’ll see vigorous debate among activists about what exactly constitutes greenwashing. But here are some pretty good indicators that you can’t trust a company’s promises:

1. It’s putting a Band-aid on a mortal wound.
We can only roll our eyes when Forever21 sends out a press release about using solar panels on its company headquarters in California. The fact that its white collar employees have their laptops powered by solar panels doesn’t negate the fact that most of its clothing is made of polyester, a textile made from petroleum, in overseas factories that don’t use solar power, and then shipped here — all super carbon-intensive activities. Plus, fast-fashion clothing that is worn and quickly thrown away (that is Forever21’s business model) emits 400% more carbon emissions per item per year than a garment kept for a full year and worn 50 times, Forbes reports.

I mean, yes, solar panels are great. I applaud emerging brands that get all their power from renewable sources (and that’s usually one sustainable initiative among many they are pursuing). But unless solar panels provide more than half of your total energy consumption — including stores, corporate headquarters, shipping, and production — and you’re offsetting the rest, they are just distracting from the main issue. And providing a good photo opp, of course.

2. It's not investing in innovation.
A large corporation’s sustainability efforts are often hampered by limitations in technology. For example, jeans can only have 20% recycled cotton before the quality drops too low to be salable, the VP of sustainability at Levi's told Quartz last year. And there are other serious challenges to sorting and recycling old clothing into new apparel. Some companies stop here, congratulating themselves on picking up technology that someone else developed, while continuing to jealously guard their secrets from competitors.

But Levi’s, for example, has partnered with the company Evrnu to pioneer new cotton-recycling technology that will increase the amount of recycled cotton in its jeans, plus has been innovating on using less water in the denim manufacturing process. The fashion conglomerate Kering has committed to a five-year partnership with the London College of Fashion to support sustainable fashion innovation. And H&M is in its second year of handing out 1 million euros to teams working on sustainable fashion innovations. A large company that wants to be sustainable should be looking for breakthrough innovations for itself and everyone else in the business, too.

3. It uses green imagery and wording, but has no certifications.
“All natural” actually means nothing, and there’s no law saying a product with a tree or leaf on its label has to be sustainable in any way. This is a tactic employed by several leading beauty brands that have vague beige and green packaging that suggests organic ingredients, in lieu of third-party certification labels like Ecocert. Curious if your crunchy-vibe beauty product is one of them? You can look it up on GoodGuide or Skin Deep Database, which will give you a clear-eyed rating.

4. It launches a prototype or capsule collection, with no plans for integration.
Kudos to G-Star, which is integrating the recycled polyester it pioneered in the Raw for the Oceans collection into its entire line. While far from perfect, H&M, at least, is the number one or number two user of organic cotton, using it across many products, not just in the Conscious Collection.

But the Fashion Law is not impressed with Zara’s new sustainable capsule collection, mainly because it’s a tiny sliver of Zara’s very unsustainable fast-fashion business model. Will the brand be integrating the natural, sustainable materials featured in this collection into its wider offerings? Who knows! It hasn't said so. Or take Adidas, which after a year of hype, made just 50 pairs of sneakers with recycled fishing nets. And it’s not for lack of demand — type “Adidas fishing net shoes” into Google and it auto-completes with “buy.” In general, these hyped-up capsule collections or prototypes often sell out immediately or never get produced, giving us sustainable-fashion blue balls. Unless we all can get in on the sustainable action, it’s not making much of a difference.

5. It's closed-lipped about the details.
Another weird thing about the Zara collection: Nobody wants to answer questions about it. (And we have so many!)

We know a perfectly sustainable fashion company doesn’t exist — the act of producing clothing will always have a negative impact on the environment. A company that is truly gunning to be more sustainable also knows that, will acknowledge it, and furthermore will be happy to offer up an executive who will talk candidly about the challenges and imperfections of their efforts to do things more ethically. Find out if they’re willing to come out from behind the PR professionals and get down and dirty with the media — if not, they’re definitely hiding something.


6. It donates to charity when it is a part of the problem.
A beauty company that promotes breast cancer awareness while harboring ingredients linked to cancer, a fashion company with a charity promoting female entrepreneurs that rips off the designs of small-time artists, or a celebrity fashion brand with feminist slogans on T-shirts that are made by underpaid women in Southeast Asia — these companies need to get their own house in order before they throw some money and slogans at the larger problem.

Hey, we also wish this all was simpler, that there was an equivalent of the USDA organic certification that we could look for before giving a fashion label our hard-earned money. But until then, you should treat fashion companies like a Tinder date: Ask lots of questions, look for candid answers, and if your gut says, “ick,” then walk away.
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