You'd need to have been asleep for the last five years not to notice that terms such as 'sustainable,' 'eco-friendly,' and 'natural' are becoming increasingly popular in industries ranging from fashion to food.
This, unsurprisingly, comes at a time when we're all more aware of the climate crisis, and injustices in the supply chain, and as a result becoming more careful of what we buy.
The growing interest in sustainability among Millennial and Generation Z consumers, combined with their increased purchasing power, is causing businesses to take note. Unfortunately, rather than doing the work, some firms are resorting to making claims that are not always back by facts. It can be really difficult to traverse the greenwashing maze, so here we offer some suggestions to recognise and avoid fashion's 'false news' trap.
What exactly is greenwashing?
Simply put, greenwashing is a strategy used by businesses to make themselves appear more environmentally and socially conscious than they are. This could include making false claims regarding green production processes or being intentionally unclear with facts. The term has been around since the 1960s, but it was popularised in 1986 by American environmentalist Jay Westerveld.
For example, a brand might claim that its clothing is made from "sustainable" materials, but fail to disclose details such as what those materials actually are, how much of it is in clothes, or the environmental impact of certain production process, such as the amount of water, energy or chemicals required to produce the material.
Another example of greenwashing in fashion is when a brand promotes its clothing as "ethically made" or "fair trade," but does not provide any concrete evidence to support these claims such as what workers they are referring to: is it their headoffice employees, or their retail staff, or those involved in clothes producion all the way through to the raw materials? In some cases, these claims may be completely false, with brands adopting exploitative practices in countries where their products are manufacutered.
How do I find it?
Greenwashing can take many different shapes. Here are a few things to look out for:
- If a company releases a small range of products labelled as sustainable, the so-called 'conscious collections', but fails to back up its promises with facts or numbers both about the collection AND the rest of its products.
- Greenwashing occurs when a company manufactures only a small portion of its product line sustainably while promoting itself as environmentally sensitive as a whole. If a company is still selling primarily unsustainably sourced and made products, and operating a commoditised business model (aka fast fashion), what does it say about the rest of its products?
- When a brand makes broad marketing claims for commercial advantage, such as "shop and save the earth" or "look great and protect the environment". These exaggerations without backing of data that are generally misleading.
- When a company inflates its ethical or environmental activities. They may, for example, create collections out of certified fabrics, while not prioritising living wages for garment workers. As we have come to learn, environemtnal and social sustainbilty cannot be separated if we seek an overall positive outcome.
Why do brands greenwash?
Brands may greenwash for a variety of reasons, including:
- Reputation management: a brand may greenwash to improve its reputation and image among consumers who are increasingly concerned about environmental issues.
- Marketing and sales: greenwashing can be used as a marketing tool to attract environmentally conscious consumers who are willing to pay a premium for eco-friendly products.
- Compliance: some brands may greenwash in an attempt to comply with environmental regulations or to avoid negative publicity for non-compliance.
- Cost premium: some brands may exaggerate the environmental benefits of their products or services to justify a higher price point, even if adopting environmentally friendly practices may lead to cost savings in the long term!
- Lack of understanding: in some cases, brands may lack data or supply chain visibility to fully understand the environmental impact of their products or services and may make unsubstantiated claims.
Regardless of the reason, greenwashing can ultimately erode consumer trust and lead to reputational damage for brands. It is important for companies to be transparent and truthful in their environmental claims and to back up their statements with concrete actions and data.
How can you avoid greenwashing in fashion?
Avoiding greenwashing in fashion can be tricky, after all the industry is renoun for its creative and clever marketing, but there are several steps you can take to help ensure that you are making sustainable and ethical fashion choices:
- Look for transparency: choose brands that are transparent about their sustainability practices and provide information about their supply chain, materials, and production processes. This can include being honest about areas that still need improvement.
- Check certifications: look for independent certifications such as GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), Fair Trade, or BCorp that verify a brand's environmental and social responsibility.
- Do your research: use online resources that verify brand claims according to their sustainability and ethical practices. Make sure you use ones that verify claims, like Madeby_, and not simply report what brands say on their websites and marketing materials!
- Consider the materials: generally natural materials such as organic cotton, linen, and hemp tend to have a ligheter footprint than synthetic fabrics that are extractive and contribute to waste and pollution, not just during production but also during their lifetime - think of microplastics shed in the wash
- Prioritize quality over quantity: if you can, invest in high-quality clothing that is made to last, rather than fast fashion that is designed to be worn a few times and then discarded. It makes good value for money too!
- Avoid trends: choose classic styles that are timeless rather than fast-fashion trends that quickly go out of style and can leave you feeling disappointed and wanting more.
- Support local and small businesses: support local and small businesses that prioritize sustainable and ethical practices and generally work more locally, rather than large fast-fashion corporations.
- Buy second hand: granted, it can be a bit more time consuming and not always have the right size availability, but shopping second hand is a great way to give clothes a longer life, and reduce their environmental impact. At Madeby_ we have tried to make this experience more fun by aggregating lots of options to shop pre-loved for your favourite brands.
Greenwashing is both misleading and harmful to the environment and society. It can be tricky to spot, but it's worth taking a little time to learn to recognise the more obvious signs: by making informed and conscious choices, we can all help promote sustainable and ethical fashion practices.
Transparency is a key value for solutions like Madeby_ which assess brands using their Honesty Framework, and very clearly say which claims have been verified. Browse their brand directory and products to discover more.