As sustainable fashion becomes more mainstream, brands are latching onto this trend — some with intentions of actually being sustainable and others who are just trying to make customers think they are eco-conscious: i.e. brands that are greenwashing.
The level of awareness we are reaching for sustainable fashion is “a beautiful moment, but it is also very dangerous” as sustainable fashion advocate Livia Firth put it. “There is greenwashing at a level there has never been before”.
Prefer to listen? Check out the podcast version!
What is Greenwashing in Fashion?
The term greenwashing was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 when he saw a hotel asking guests to reuse towels in order to “help the environment”, when in reality the hotel didn’t want to wash guests’ towels to save money and their own bottom line. The term was then used to describe “outrageous corporate environmental claims“, like the advertisements oil company Chevron took out to brag about its “environmental programs”.
The term holds a similar meaning today though it has taken on broader applications.
Greenwashing refers to practices undertaken by companies, organizations, and even politicians to overstate or mislead people on their ecological or social responsibility.
In fashion, greenwashing is often employed by Big Fashion brands — like fast fashion labels — that want to capture a growing market of climate-conscious consumers.
We’ll get into the specifics below, but greenwashing in fashion often looks like small “eco” collections (while the rest of a brand’s range is wholly unsustainable) or a fashion brand just advertising one eco element of their production (like recycled packaging or dyes that use slightly less water), asserting that it makes their entire product sustainable.
I’d also argue that all fast fashion brand’s sustainability claims are greenwashing unless they address the biggest sustainability issue of them all: overproduction. When you see the ecological crisis caused by mountains of clothing waste in places like Atacama Desert in Chile, it’s (visibly) clear that brands are producing far far too much clothing.
How Can You Spot Greenwashing in Fashion?
The “7 Sins of Greenwashing” sum up the main ways that companies overstate or mislead people with green marketing. Below I will break down what each greenwashing sin is, how it is present in the fashion industry today, and how you can spot it!
1. Hidden Trade-Off
What it is: The sin of hidden trade-offs is where a brand claims a product, collection, etc. is eco-friendly based on a small set of attributes without taking the full impacts of production into consideration.
Fashion Greenwashing Example: If a large fashion brand uses partially recycled fabrics for their collections and calls them “eco-friendly” although those garments were produced in excessive quantities in fossil-fuel-powered factories and are designed to go out of season in just a few months.
Some fast-fashion retailers have even been investigated or warned by authorities and watchdogs for exaggerating their sustainability claims. H&M was criticized by the Norweigian Customer Authority for “misleading” marketing of their Conscious Collection because “the information given regarding sustainability was not sufficient, especially given that the Conscious Collection is advertised as a collection with environmental benefits.”
How to Spot it: Look at a brand’s about or sustainability pages to get a more holistic view of that brand’s overall environmental and social responsibility practices.
Do they use renewable energy to power their workshops or factories? What efforts are they taking to reduce (or even eliminate) excess water use, waste, or carbon emissions during production? Does the brand use recycled or compostable shipping materials? Do they source a majority of eco-friendly fabrics and dyes or does just a small percentage of their collection uses these types of materials?
2. No Proof
What it is: When a brand makes some environmental-related claim without actually providing evidence.
Fashion Greenwashing Example: An example of this in the fashion industry is when brands say their clothing is made from recycled fabrics, but they can’t actually verify or prove that those fabrics were recycled. Another example would be if a brand says that they pay fair wages but they actually don’t ensure that all of their suppliers are paying a living wage.
How to Spot it: Always look for details! Does the brand say A) “we produce ethically” or do they say B) “we pay above Fair Trade wages/3x the minimum wage, provide healthcare benefits for workers, invest in educational initiatives, and ensure all garment workers never work more than X hours per week.” Something like B is far more preferable.
In addition to details, look for evidence that the brand has to back up those claims. Does the brand have a traceable supply chain so that they can actually verify what they say in their marketing about sustainable or ethical production? Do brand representatives visit the factories they source from or does the brand have a vertically integrated supply chain where they own the factories where their products are made? Does the brand use independent audits or do the supplier factories hold certifications like Fair Trade or Global Organic Textile Standard?
The types of evidence used will look very different depending on the size of the brand. Larger brands are more likely to have proof in the form of certifications or audits and smaller brands are more likely to have proof in the form of photos, videos, and personal accounts of the workshops they work with or own. Certifications can be quite expensive to get, so smaller brands are not always able to get those, even if their practices meet or exceed the requirements of the certification.
If it’s a larger brand, look for a Sustainability Report or Impact Report that details their social and environmental impact as well as the progress they are making. See what independent data the brand provides to back up its green marketing claims.
I know this is all quite overwhelming and can be time-consuming, so you can also look at third-party ratings such as the Good on You app if you want to be able to make a quick assessment of a brand’s sustainability. No rating is perfect, but it can give you a good start.
What it is: The sin of vagueness refers to the practice of using terms that are broad and cannot be really defined or understood.
Fashion Greenwashing Example: This one is rampant in the fashion industry! Many brands will use words like “conscious”, “eco-friendly”, or “ethical” and provide zero details about how they are any of these things.
How to Spot it: Look for as many details as possible when brands make statements about their eco-friendliness. It’s not enough for a brand to say made from “sustainable fabric”. Look at what fabric it is. For instance, some brands with say eco vegan leather, when actually they’re using toxic PVC made from petroleum. Yes, it’s vegan — but it’s certainly not sustainable.
Or when a brand says natural fibers, be sure to check which fibers are being used and what percentage of the piece is made from those natural fibers.
Also, natural isn’t always eco-friendly. For example, most cotton is grown with industrial chemical-intensive agricultural practices.
Some earth-minded natural fibers are organic cotton, hemp, and linen. It’s still important to consider how those fibers were processed, but just looking at the fabric content on a product description page or garment tag is a good place to start.
What it is: This is when a brand states something on their marketing that is true but is not actually relevant to advertise.
Fashion Greenwashing Example: When a fashion brand says their production is ethical because they pay minimum wages or don’t use child labor. Those things are already required by law in most parts of the world so that doesn’t make a brand “ethical” — it just means they’re following the bare minimum legal requirements.
How to Spot it: When a brand is advertising some sort of benefit and your first instinct is “shouldn’t all brands already be doing that?” then you may want to investigate the claim a bit further.
While it’s true that not all fashion brands actually follow all environmental and labor laws (mostly by using subcontractors to avoid accountability for any violations), a brand should not advertise that it is sustainable or ethical just because it follows basic standards already required by law.
5. Lesser of Two Evils
What it is: The Lesser of Two Evils is the “sin” where brands claim that their products are more eco-friendly than their competitors when the whole product category is actually unsustainable.
Fashion Greenwashing Example: The best example of this is fast fashion brands claiming their collections are conscious, circular, or eco-friendly. These fast-fashion companies fail to acknowledge the unsustainability of their very business model.
Yes, using more eco-friendly materials and dyes is certainly a step in the right direction. But pushing for endlessly more, cheaper, and faster production is not and never will be sustainable.
This approach requires far too many resources (even “renewable” resources can be consumed at a faster rate than they can actually renew), creates excessive waste, encourages overconsumption, and inevitably leads to labor exploitation.
Sustainable fashion MUST include discussions about less. Any brand actually committed to sustainable fashion must have a focus on higher quality, longer-lasting, fewer garments. Making garments from green fabrics doesn’t help much if those garments fall apart after two wears or go out of style after one season.
And no matter how ecologically responsible their garments may be, a brand cannot be sustainable if they do not ensure safe conditions for workers and a fair, living wage.
A brand simply cannot claim to be sustainable if they are exploiting labor. What kind of world would we be “sustaining”?
How to Spot it: Avoid fast fashion brands and be suspicious of any claims from large brands that operate with a model of endless growth.
Hint: any brand publically traded company is likely receiving pressure from stockholders to pursue continual growth quarter after quarter.
One step US comapnies can take is to become a Public Benefit Corporation, which is is a for-profit company that’s “required to consider the impact of their decisions not only on shareholders but also on employees, customers, the community, and local and global environment.” However, the requirements vary state by state and some states let a company measure its own performance (i.e. they don’t require any third-party verficications to make sure a company is actually doing what they say they are).
What it is: Plain ol’ false advertising!
Fashion Greenwashing Example: When a fashion brand says they use 100% recycled materials or non-toxic dyes but they actually don’t. This can also happen when a brand claims they hold a certification (fair trade, organic, etc.) but they actually do not.
How to Spot it: Unfortunately, this one is the hardest to spot! But if you are unsure about a brand’s claims, email them asking for their specific certification number or a copy of the certificate given by an independent third-party.
7. Worshiping False Labels:
What it is: When a brand implies that they hold a third-party verification or certification though they actually do not.
Fashion Greenwashing Example: If a brand puts on a fake certification label saying something like “Green Product” or “Guaranteed Ethical” that they designed themselves.
How to Spot it: This is a great go-to resource breaking down the various sustainability and ethical certifications you may see on product tags or fashion brand websites. Some common trusted certifications are Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), B-Corp, and Fair Trade Certified.
For a more holistic look of brands, check out Remake’s Directory or the Good On You directory. Remake’s rankings are far more in-depth, though it’s newer so they haven’t reviewed as many brands as Good On You has yet.
What if I Fall for Greenwashing in Fashion?
We can all be fooled by overstated or false claims of sustainability from brands. I’ve been there and while I make efforts to thoroughly research brands, I cannot necessarily avoid 100% of greenwashing myself either.
While there is a growing amount of research available to us from third-parties, research groups, as well as bloggers and publications, there is still confusion, conflicting advice, and potentially influence from industry interests at play. Identifying greenwashing is therefore an imperfect process.
There is also little to no regulatory oversight of the fashion industry, making it very easy for brands to exaggerate or flat-out lie about their sustainability claims.
This is why we should be pushing our governments to make stricter laws against greenwashing — and actually work to develop agreed-upon standards for sustainability in the first place!
Currently, it is up to an individual’s own due diligence to make sure a brand is actually as eco-friendly as they claim. And that is a big task.
So, don’t be hard on yourself if you have bought from a brand that wasn’t as earth-friendly or people-friendly as you originally thought they were. Use it as a learning opportunity for the future. And, if you were disappointed by a brand, don’t be afraid to speak up and let them know on social media or through email. Many of these huge brands will try to get away with greenwashing for as long as they can get away with it (and profit off of it) so it’s important for us to continue putting pressure on these corporations!