As we see the exponential growth in dialogue around sustainability, environmentalism, the climate crisis and social justice, the term 'greenwashing' is becoming ever more important in separating the do-gooders from the wannabes. Orsola de Castro, founder and creative director of Fashion Revolution, explains that whether it's "whitewashing or greenwashing, these [issues] are problematic in every industry, not just fashion, as they prevent the truth being told. Our clothes should be covering up our bodies, not the reality in which they were made." I couldn’t agree more.
What exactly is greenwashing? The term was coined in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld to describe outlandish corporate environmental claims that were deemed false. Now, greenwashing is used when a brand’s marketing around sustainability runs counter to its actual business practices. Essentially, brands recognise a sales opportunity by running sustainability-focused marketing campaigns with no intention of living up to their claims. Brands calling for sustainability can be great for raising public awareness of these matters but there is no doubt that many are engaging with the trend simply to shift more products. The ultimate issue is that consumers feel confused, overwhelmed and unsure whether their purchase is helping the planet or putting another penny into a greenwashing machine.
Fast fashion houses are among the first to have been labelled greenwashers. Last year H&M shared new green claims with WWD, including a pledge to use solely recycled or sustainable materials by 2030. H&M also came first in Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index 2020. Don’t these two facts make it sound like a truly sustainable brand? Yet many see these examples as strategic box-ticking exercises rather than a truly holistic way of doing business — and thus greenwashing. H&M has since been accused of not addressing the detrimental impact of mass production on the planet. From toxic dyes entering our water systems to failing to pay garment workers a full living wage, in my view, fast fashion can never be truly sustainable.
The truth is, a holistically sustainable brand does not only consider the environment. It also takes into account social justice factors, including equal pay, garment worker rights, safe factory conditions and more. A truly sustainable brand will address every one of these factors and have the accountability, traceability and facts to prove it. "True sustainability is a nuanced conversation that extends not only [to] the materials used or the labour conditions but [to] the scale of production and consumption as well," says sustainable fashion and social justice advocate Aditi Mayer. Ultimately we all want to build a more transparent, fair and intersectional fashion industry. It won’t happen overnight but, as Aditi says, the goal is for brands to "not [use] sustainability or diversity as a pure selling point but a grounding philosophy of how the brand operates and understands the metrics of success."
In order to gain more transparency, we must first get a few things straight. Here is a list of tips for becoming an anti-greenwashing expert and using your voice and knowledge to create real change.
Numbers over words
Always look for figures to support new green claims and never take glossy and often impressive statements at face value. Companies which are truly committed to sustainable practices are proud to support their ambitions with measurable figures to hold themselves accountable, too.
Remember that buying something from a brand is an investment in that company and its values. "I also think it’s important to look at who the brand is owned by and how much that person is worth," says slow fashion campaigner and activist Venetia La Manna. "General rule: don’t trust fashion brands run by billionaires!" The end goal should be to invest in companies that integrate sustainability into everything they do and at all levels, not just a one-off collection or a handful of pieces.
The human touch
We must remember that however planet-friendly a material is, every item we buy passes through many pairs of hands before reaching the shops. A sustainable approach includes the fair treatment of the people up and down the supply chain, from garment and factory workers to local communities, transport employees and more. "We have to remember that many of the people making those clothes are poor women in the Global South who aren’t paid a fair living wage," Venetia says. The unfortunate reality is that many fast fashion chains take advantage of factories in this part of the world because there are fewer health and safety restrictions and low living wages.
Vegan doesn’t equal sustainable
Many vegan alternatives are made from polluting and plastic-derived materials. These are hugely toxic for the environment and are often branded as vegan to make them more desirable and in line with current trends and consumer demands. We must question whether these brands are implementing sustainable practices in other areas of their business, not just material innovation.
Use your voice
Before you buy, read up on the brand or drop them a message on social media and ask questions like: Who made my clothes? How do you ensure your factories are safe? How do you minimise the environmental effects of making clothes? These questions will show the brand that you are a conscious consumer. You have the right to know the whole supply chain and if they don’t answer, they don’t deserve your purchase! Venetia says: "I think it’s important for consumers to hold brands accountable and insist they do better if we’re to achieve that all-important solidarity economy that puts the wellbeing of people and planet before corporate profits."
Knowledge is power
Orsola shares this important notion: "The more we know, the more we understand, the better we can hold that argument and be more forceful in demanding change." We need to take control of our spending and reclaim the power of which brands get our money and which don’t. Every time you spend, you vote for the kind of industry you want to see. This is a key step towards living in line with your values.
Finally, Aditi states that "we can’t undermine the power of collective consumer demand for the industry to pull up." Recent campaigns which have been calling for change in the fashion industry by demanding equality, fair pay and transparency include #WhoMadeMyClothes and ReMake’s #PayUp petition. Each voice adds to a louder cry and can make all the difference, so when you next see a green statement from a brand you love, stop, think, ask questions and decide whether this is a company striving for change or simply greenwashing you into another purchase.