How to Spot Greenwashing in the Fashion Industry
What it really takes to go (genuinely) green.
Consumers are demanding ethically-made and sustainable clothes, and more brands are committing to environmentalism and taking steps to protect the planet and their workers. Unfortunately, many brands recognize an opportunity to boost profits through sustainability-focused campaigns, despite not taking any steps to improve their actual business practices. What is greenwashing? Greenwashing is a term coined by environmentalist Jay Westervelt. It refers to when a company uses misleading marketing and PR, deceptively claiming that they're doing more for environmentalism than they truly are. Keep reading to learn about seven greenwashing examples so you can make sure you’re supporting genuinely sustainable clothing brands.
1. Question the eco-friendly collections
A tell-tale sign of greenwashing is vague sustainability-related marketing. When brands launch a “conscious collection” or an “eco-friendly line”, what percentage of the overall business do these lines represent? More often than not, these collections represent a tiny portion of a fashion company’s total range of product offerings. Remember that some fast fashion brands launch up to 5000 products everyday. Not to mention, having a “conscious collection” does not balance out the thousands of clothes that go to landfills daily. Consider the production chain behind the scenes of an “eco-friendly line” versus the rest of their collections. Often, they use the same unethical production practices but make minor changes, such as using a small percentage of organic cotton and recycled polyester in the final product.
2. Look for certifications
Fortunately, there are certifications that fashion brands can receive to show their commitment to sustainability. Double-check to ensure that the certificates a brand claims to have are legitimate. Some reputable certifications in the industry are:
- Global Organic Textile Standard: limits use of toxic bleaches, dyes, and chemicals during textile production
- Certified B Corporation: recognizes companies that are driving positive change towards a sustainable economy
- Fairtrade: advocates for protection of farming and worker communities globally
3. Check the labels
Brands often claim to use sustainable fabrics and throw out the words “vegan” and “natural” in their marketing. However, these terms don’t always equal sustainability. Many vegan alternatives are made from synthetic, plastic-derived materials that pollute the environment. In fact, it’s estimated that 35% of all microplastics in the ocean came from the washing of synthetic fabrics. Reading the labels closely will give you a clearer picture of what your clothing is actually made of, sustainable or not. Look for certifications like GOTS or ask your favourite brands #WhatsInMyFabric?
4. Visit their website
Most brands that are truly committed will use harder adjectives like ‘sustainable’ to describe their products as opposed to softer adjectives like ‘green’ or ‘conscious’. This isn’t always the case though, so check to see how easy their information is to find. When you visit a brand’s website, how many clicks does it take you to get to information about their fabrics, production facilities, and suppliers? Truly ethical brands are proud of their ethical and sustainability standards and will display them prominently - checkout out our “About Encircled” page to learn about our commitment to sustainable and ethical fashion. Brands who are genuinely dedicated to changing the harmful fashion industry model through environmentalism and ethical practices highly value sharing their progress with the world. They often measure their efforts and celebrate achievements with their audiences. A red flag should always go up in your mind if a company who claims to be sustainable is not enthusiastic to show it or make necessary information widely accessible.
5. Unwrap the packaging
One step that brands can take towards sustainability is by reducing the plastic in their packaging. 91% of plastic packaging isn’t recycled and often makes their way to landfills or the ocean where they will take 20-500 years to decompose. Alternatively, brands can use their packaging as another form of greenwashing. Often, they will use “recyclable” or “eco-friendly” packaging as one of their selling points. However, recyclable packaging means very little if they are still mass-producing cheaply-made clothing and not paying their workers in overseas garment factories. Eco-friendly packaging with little to no effort in any other areas, such as ethics, is simply not enough.
6. Differentiate between design vs. production locations
Fast fashion companies pride themselves on designing their products in Western countries positioning themselves as high quality, innovative, and ethical. While it is great to source local talent and create jobs by designing in your home country, it is important that consumers do not lose sight of where their clothing is actually produced. This information may be hidden or hard to find as companies do not want to harm the sustainable qualities of their brand with the ugly truth of production. It is not a secret that fast fashion relies on cheap labour and the exploitation of human rights in eastern, developing countries. Knowing the difference between where your clothing was designed and produced is key to uncovering its true environmental impact.
7. Stay alert around deceptive imagery
Many fast fashion brands use images of earth and nature in their marketing materials when promoting their environmental efforts and commitment to sustainable practices. Keep an eye out for images of lush rainforests, beautiful fields, and majestic mountains in an attempt to associate their clothing with positive, desirable, and feel-good ideas of protecting nature. When you see these types of images, head over to the brand's website and see what they're really doing to operate ethically and sustainably before purchasing. Likewise, earthy tones and colours, especially green, have been used and abused all too frequently. Traditionally, green packaging or labeling signified a product’s eco-friendly credibility. Now, it is crucial to be weary of such packaging methods meant to deceive consumers at first glance.
For more information on sustainable fashion, check out these posts:
Comment what you’re doing to support (genuinely) sustainable brands. We’d love to know!