Greenwashing is the use of marketing to portray an organisation’s products, activities or policies as environmentally friendly when they are not. With people becoming increasingly aware of fashion’s impact on the planet, some brands may be tempted to put a spin on their environmental sins. So how can you tell when a fashion brand is greenwashing?
There are many companies that employ Greenwashing techniques to cover for their environmentally destructive business operations. The practice is particularly bad 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. So what are the telltale signs? Here are some examples that you can identify and avoid:
1. Impressive-sounding initiatives to reduce carbon emissions 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 in order to reduce their carbon footprint, as this is the largest source of carbon emissions. In fact production accounts for a massive 70 percent of the overall carbon footprint of the fashion industry. Brands should look at production facilities, transport and shipping methods, and the environmental impacts of source materials.
A brand’s sustainability report should show exactly how it is addressing supply chain emissions. The Good On You app uses these reports to evaluate a brand’s environmental impact and give it a score so you can compare brands and see who is truly taking steps to protect the planet.
2. Recycled and minimal packaging is not enough
Keep an eye out for brands who promote minimal, recycled or “recyclable” packaging, as a sign that they are reducing waste. They may even go as far as saying that they recycle their ink cartridges in the office. Again, these gestures alone do not make up for production processes that cause huge 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. Recently, luxury fashion brand Burberry caused outrage by burning 28 million pounds worth of unsold clothes and perfume, but many have pointed out that it’s a common practice for fashion brands.
Then there are the cheap fast fashion brands that encourage throwaway culture with clothing, and can never be truly sustainable. In Australia alone, 6000 kg of clothing is dumped in landfill every 10 minutes. When brands like these talk about reducing waste, without changing their business models, then the greenwashing alarm bells should be ringing.
Look out too for brands who outsource their waste reduction to you, the consumer. Producing clothes that are ‘timeless’ and ‘reject passing trends’ is great, but if the clothes are cheap, mass produced and of low quality they’re no better than trendy fast fashion because they’re still heading for the scrap heap sooner rather than later.
However, if a brand is truly addressing textile waste while also minimising packaging – then that is a win on both fronts!
3. ‘Energy efficiency’ that’s actually just the law
Greenwashing in the fashion industry can come in many shapes and forms. The use of LED and energy-efficient lighting, or sensored 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. Big claims followed by fine print, making targets look bigger than they are
Targets are a funny thing. Brands are more or less free to set targets for their environmental impact that are comfortable to achieve, sound good and may or may not be impactful.
A good way to decipher this is by looking for 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 bigger – before they sold off subsidiaries or production facilities. It would be quite comfortable for this brand to achieve a 50% emissions reduction, without doing much. Or even if the emissions reduction is expressed as a percentage of production volume – yes you used 15% less energy to produce a single t-shirt, but you’re producing ten times as many t-shirts so your overall emissions have gone up!
Science-based climate targets are the gold standard. If a company is one of the 400 or so adopting emissions reductions targets that are actually related to what scientists say we need in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, then they are doing their bit.
5. Greenwashing can apply to labour standards too
Many countries have a minimum wage, the legal lowest wage a company can pay its workers. This is very different to a living wage – the minimum wage a garment worker should earn in order to feed themselves, their families and to pay rent, healthcare, transportation and education. The majority of garment workers in Bangladesh are earning 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.
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 different countries to the brand itself, workers can be overlooked, poorly treated and their health can be put at risk.
That’s why full supply chain transparency is essential – ethical brands should list the names and locations of all the factories involved in the production of their products. Better still, brands that operate under fair trade rules are ensuring that workers are getting a fair deal and a living wage.
6. Marketing an aspect of sustainability within a larger organisation that’s not sustainable
Feeling tempted to head back to a fast fashion store because they advertise their new ‘organics’ or ‘sustainable’ range? Don’t be fooled! This is an increasingly common marketing tool with high-volume, fast fashion labels.
Often this range of clothing is a tiny portion of their overall production, and it doesn’t mean that these labels 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.
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 their ethical range to more than 50% of their products, or are working towards making their 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 to do – 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. Lookout for things like GOTS certification to know it’s a truly sustainable product.
There are much better options out there anyway with an increasing number of more dedicated sustainable and ethical brands that want to provide full disclosure on the great ways they are making their products – with no greenwashing necessary!
Using apps like Good On You is a great place to read up on the overall impact of a brand, with detailed information from their sustainability report and other reliable sources. It is platforms such as these that provide the disclosure some brands avoid offering, gives the consumer the power to know the impact of the products they are buying and point out the ones who are constantly greenwashing and misleading consumers.
Author bio: Madeleine is an experienced content writer who specialises in all things personal sustainability, environmental awareness, and minimal consumption. She loves using her writing and research to clearly communicate these key solutions to environmental issues, and endeavours to help people do more in their everyday lives to minimise their footprint on the planet. To do this, Madeleine also manages the online platform Our Simple Gestures, and in her spare time loves being outdoors and enjoying life! Find her at LinkedIn, Instagram and at the website.