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12 Jun
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How Can You Tell When a Fashion Brand Is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a marketing tactic used to portray an organisation as environmentally friendly when they’re anything but. Here’s how to tell when a fashion brand is greenwashing.

Brands putting a spin on their sins

With people becoming increasingly aware of many industries’ impacts on the planet, some companies are tempted to put a spin on their environmental sins. In a show of “all talk, no action”, businesses will spend more time and money on portraying themselves as caring for the planet rather than taking actionable measures to reduce their impact.

These companies employ greenwashing techniques to cover for their environmentally-destructive business operations. The practice is prevalent in the fossil fuel industry. For example, it’s no coincidence that one of the biggest oil companies in the world, BP, has chosen the colour green as its primary branding colour and that the logo resembles a flower. These little links to nature reference an eco-friendly model, but most of us can see through the blatant spin.

Greenwashing exists in fashion too, but it may be less glaringly obvious. As conscious consumers, we should recognise that there are no simple solutions to complex problems. So, what are the telltale signs? How can you tell when a fashion brand is greenwashing?

To unravel the tangled web of greenwashing and unveil the truth behind the most common sustainability claims, we turned to the trusted expertise of our diligent ratings analysts. These knowledgeable folks have delved deep into the public disclosures of countless brands over the years, uncovering the realities that lie beneath the surface.

1. Impressive-sounding initiatives to reduce carbon emissions or waste at head office

Got some solar panels on the headquarters roof and an office full of plants? That’s great, but it’s not nearly enough. The supply chain should be one of the first things companies address to reduce their carbon footprint, as this is the largest source of carbon emissions. Production accounts for a massive 70% of the fashion industry’s overall carbon footprint. Brands should look at production facilities, transport and shipping methods, and the environmental impacts of source materials.

Sustainability initiatives such as supplying reusable cups to employees or eliminating single use plastic items at the head office, whilst not mentioning anything about waste throughout their supply chain, is often a sign of greenwashing.

Katelin Opferkuch, PhD – Ratings analyst at Good On You

A brand’s sustainability report should show precisely how it addresses supply chain emissions. Good On You uses these reports to evaluate a brand’s environmental impact and give it a score so you can compare brands and see who is genuinely taking steps to protect the planet.

2. ‘Eco-friendly packaging’ and not much else

Keep an eye out for brands that promote minimal, recycled, or “recyclable” packaging as a sign that they are reducing waste. They may even mention that they recycle their ink cartridges in the office. Again, these gestures alone do not make up for production processes that cause vast amounts of waste and pollution.

The biggest sources of waste in fashion are the textile waste at the production stage and the surplus of clothing being produced. A few years ago, luxury fashion brand Burberry caused outrage by burning £28m worth of unsold clothes and perfume, but many pointed out that it’s a common practice for fashion brands.

Packaging claims often dominate a brands’ entire sustainability pages, with very little meaningful action being taken to reduce waste within their supply chain.

Becca Willcox – Ratings analyst at Good On You

Then there are the cheap fast fashion brands that encourage throwaway culture—a business model that can never be truly sustainable. It’s said that the equivalent of a rubbish truck full of clothes ends up on landfill sites every second. When brands like these talk about reducing waste without changing their mass production practices, then the greenwashing alarm bells should be ringing.

Also look out for brands that outsource their waste reduction to you, the consumer. Producing clothes that are “timeless” and “reject passing trends” is all well and good, but if the clothes are cheap, mass-produced, and of low quality, they’re no better than trendy fast fashion, because chances are they’re still heading for the scrap heap sooner rather than later.

However, if a brand truly addresses textile waste while also minimising packaging, that’s a win on both fronts.

3. ‘Energy efficiency’ that is just the law

Greenwashing in the fashion industry can come in many shapes and forms. The use of LED and energy-efficient lighting or sensor lights in stores can sometimes be little more than spin. Many office buildings already have this type of lighting. It is even a legal requirement in some countries. If the company itself has not implemented anything new to improve their environmental footprint, they’re just making a big deal about something everyone is required to do.

4. Misleading claims and targets that are not backed up with enough public data

Targets are a funny thing. Brands are more or less free to set targets for their environmental impact that are comfortable to achieve, sound promising, and may or may not be impactful.

A good way to decipher this is by looking at the fine print. For example, reducing emissions by 50% sounds great until you read that the 50% is pegged to a date in the past when a company was much larger—before they sold off subsidiaries or production facilities. It would be quite easy for them to “halve emissions” without doing much at all. This same trick applies to emissions reductions expressed as a percentage of production volume—yes, you used 15% less energy to produce a single t-shirt. But you’re making ten times as many t-shirts, so your overall emissions have gone up.

While setting targets is a step in the right direction, many brands are prone to setting ambitious environmental targets without disclosing how they plan to achieve them. If a brand is going to set a target relating to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, or increasing its use of lower-impact materials, it should ensure that the target is realistic. The brand should also ensure that it regularly updates consumers on progress—even if progress is slow.

Kate Hobson-Lloyd – Ratings analyst at Good On You

Science-based climate targets are the gold standard. If a company is adopting emissions reductions targets related to what scientists say we need to avoid catastrophic climate change, they are doing their bit. And while some brands strive to adopt science-based targets, many fall short, often making grandiose claims and setting ambitious targets without backing them with public data.

Our report on fashion and climate inaction, which analysed over 4,000 brands, revealed the targets set by brands are not all they’re made out to be. Brands are rushing to set impressive-sounding targets to show their customers how concerned they are about the climate. 45% of the large brands we looked at had set greenhouse gas emissions targets covering at least some of their direct operations or supply chains, but only 21% of large brands had science-based targets. What’s more, 51% of large brands with greenhouse gas emissions targets do not state whether they are on track to meet them.

5. Payment of a ‘minimum wage’

Many countries have a “minimum wage”, the lowest legal wage a company can pay its workers. This is very different from a “living wage“—the minimum wage a garment worker should earn to feed themselves and their families, pay rent, and cover healthcare, transportation, and education. The majority of garment workers in Bangladesh, for example, earn little more than the minimum wage and far below what is considered a living wage. Companies that shout about ensuring the minimum wage is being paid are doing the very least and don’t deserve a pat on the back.

Brands that claim to be ethical often mention that they pay 'fair wages' but don’t clearly specify what this means and how much workers are actually getting paid. This is misleading, as 'fair wages' does not necessarily mean 'living wages'.

Jessica Ouano – Ratings analyst at Good On You

When you see a brand talk about their labour standards and the living wage, be aware this is a hard factor to regulate. In large production facilities located in countries outside of the brand itself, workers can be overlooked, poorly treated, and their health put at risk.

That’s why full supply chain transparency is essential—responsible brands should list the names and locations of all the factories involved in the production of their products. Better still, look out for brands that operate under fair trade rules, which ensure that workers are getting a fair deal and a living wage.

6. ‘Sustainable’ ranges in large companies

Feeling tempted to head back to a fast fashion store because they advertise their new “organic” or “sustainable” range? Don’t be fooled. This is an increasingly common marketing tool with high-volume, fast fashion labels.

This range of clothing is often a tiny portion of their overall production, and it doesn’t mean that the brands have made a complete overhaul of their business models overnight. What a brand is really doing here is hoping that the green glow of one initiative will rub off on the company as a whole.

For some certifications, you only need 5% of organic cotton content in a product to label it as 'organic', so always be careful and double check brands' claims.

Noriko Kakue – Ratings analyst at Good On You

Don’t believe that fast fashion can become ethical from one corner of a massive store. Unless the brand has set clear targets to increase its ethical range to more than 50% of products or is working towards making the whole business ethical—it’s greenwashing.

Also, brands without a diversity of products in their ethical range may not be serious. Organic cotton t-shirts are easy enough to do—but what about looking at wastewater and water use, harmful dyes, labour rights and conditions? Just because it’s organic cotton doesn’t make it green.

7. ‘Carbon offsetting’ in lieu of actively reducing emissions

Recently more and more companies have included carbon offsetting in their sustainability strategies. Carbon offset schemes fund projects that aim to reduce future emissions. These projects can take the form of clean energy technologies, such as solar panels, or planting trees to help absorb carbon dioxide emissions from the air.

It is imperative that companies acknowledge that offsetting cannot be a substitute for real emissions reductions. Brands may use terms such as ‘Carbon Neutral’, ‘Net Zero’, or ‘Climate Positive’. Whilst the projects themselves may seem innovative and exciting, a brand must be reducing emissions in its value chain to show real leadership and real action on climate change.

Kristian Hardiman – Head of ratings at Good On You

The issue with carbon offsetting is that it doesn’t really do much to reduce the emissions produced today, it just balances them out. Yes, brands might help fund projects to decrease greenhouse gas emissions in the future, but in the meantime, they’re still emitting an enormous amount of carbon, and doing very little to stop that. Worse still, carbon offsetting may take the place of actions that actually reduce emissions, and end up being harmful. Unless the company actively works to reduce its emissions, the best carbon offsetting can do at this stage is keep emissions at their current level.

Put the power back in your hands

Greenwashing is a bit like putting a cherry on top of a cake made of garbage and calling it good, but as our CEO Gordon Renouf reminds us, “the problem is not only claims that are not true, it’s brands’ failure to provide full information about every aspect of their production practices to meet consumers expectations right to know how their clothes are made, distributed, sold, and dealt with at end of life, and how they impact on the sustainability issues consumers care about.”

The underlying approach of both a more ethical brand and effective government regulation should be on full transparency, not just on stamping out misleading claims marketers choose to make.

Gordon Renouf – CEO at Good On You

But it’s not all bad news. There’s an ever-increasing number of dedicated more sustainable and ethical brands that want to provide full disclosure on the great ways they are making their products—with no greenwashing necessary.

Our directory is a great place to read up on the overall impact of a brand, with detailed information from over 500 data points per brand across more than 100 key sustainability issues, indicators, and standards systems. We help to provide the disclosure some brands avoid offering, giving consumers the power to know the impact of the products they are buying. We point out the brands that are constantly greenwashing and misleading consumers, and provide more ethical alternatives that are worth supporting. 

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Editor's note

Feature image via Unsplash. Good On You publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet, and animals. Use our directory to search thousands of rated brands.

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