How to Determine if a Fashion Brand is Truly Sustainable or Engaged in Greenwashing

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With the rise of sustainable fashion, many brands are jumping on the bandwagon, some with genuine intentions of being environmentally friendly, while others are simply trying to create the illusion of sustainability. This deceptive practice, known as greenwashing, is becoming increasingly common in the industry. It is crucial for consumers to be able to differentiate between truly sustainable brands and those engaging in greenwashing.

Livia Firth, a prominent advocate for sustainable fashion, describes the current state of awareness in the industry as both promising and perilous. She warns that the level of greenwashing is unprecedented.

What is Greenwashing in the Fashion Industry?

The term “greenwashing” was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986. He observed a hotel that encouraged guests to reuse towels for environmental reasons, but in reality, the motive was to save money. The term has since been used to describe misleading corporate environmental claims, such as oil companies boasting about their “environmental programs”.

In the context of fashion, greenwashing refers to the deceptive practices used by companies, organizations, and politicians to exaggerate or mislead people about their ecological or social responsibility.

In the fashion industry, greenwashing is often employed by large brands, particularly fast fashion labels, that aim to attract increasingly environmentally conscious consumers. Common greenwashing tactics include launching small “eco” collections while the majority of their products remain unsustainable, or highlighting one eco element of their production to claim overall sustainability.

It’s important to note that sustainability claims made by fast fashion brands are typically greenwashing unless they address the industry’s biggest issue: overproduction. The excessive amount of clothing waste generated by the fashion industry highlights the need for brands to produce significantly less.

How Can You Identify Greenwashing in the Fashion Industry?

The “7 Sins of Greenwashing” outline the main ways in which companies mislead consumers with their green marketing strategies. Understanding these sins can help you spot greenwashing in the fashion industry:

1. Hidden Trade-Off

What it is: Brands claim eco-friendliness based on a few specific attributes without considering the broader environmental impacts of their production.

Fashion Greenwashing Example: A fashion brand may use partially recycled fabrics for certain collections and label them as eco-friendly, while ignoring excessive production quantities and the use of fossil-fuel-powered factories.

How to Spot it: Examine a brand’s sustainability and environmental responsibility practices as a whole. Look for information on their use of renewable energy, efforts to reduce water consumption, waste management, carbon emissions, and the percentage of eco-friendly materials used in their entire collection.

2. No Proof

What it is: Brands make environmental claims without providing evidence to support them.

Fashion Greenwashing Example: A brand may claim to use recycled fabrics but fail to verify or prove their claim. They may also assert that they pay fair wages, when in reality, they do not ensure all their suppliers meet this standard.

How to Spot it: Look for specific details and evidence supporting the brand’s claims. Check if they provide third-party certifications or audits, traceable supply chains, and visits to the factories they source from. Independent verifications or certifications like Fair Trade or Global Organic Textile Standard are good indicators of transparency and credibility.

3. Vagueness

What it is: Brands use broad terms that lack clear definitions or understanding.

Fashion Greenwashing Example: Many fashion brands use ambiguous terms like “conscious,” “eco-friendly,” or “ethical” without providing specific details about their sustainability practices.

How to Spot it: Look for specific details when brands claim to be eco-friendly. Pay attention to the type of fabric used, such as eco vegan leather made from non-toxic materials, and verify if natural fibers are truly organic and responsibly sourced.

4. Irrelevance

What it is: Brands make claims that are already required by law or are considered basic standards in the industry.

Fashion Greenwashing Example: A brand advertises itself as ethical because it pays minimum wages or avoids child labor. However, complying with labor laws is a legal requirement and does not make a brand truly ethical.

How to Spot it: If a brand’s claim seems common sense or should already be expected from all brands, it may be a sign of greenwashing. Look beyond basic legal requirements and consider whether the brand goes above and beyond to ensure sustainability and ethical practices.

5. Lesser of Two Evils

What it is: Brands claim to be more eco-friendly than competitors within an inherently unsustainable product category.

Fashion Greenwashing Example: Fast fashion brands market their collections as conscious or eco-friendly, while conveniently ignoring the unsustainability of their business models.

How to Spot it: Be cautious of fast fashion brands and any claims made by large brands that prioritize endless growth. Sustainable fashion must advocate for quality over quantity and promote garments that are durable and timeless. It should also ensure safe working conditions and fair wages for employees.

6. Fibbing

What it is: Brands engage in false advertising by making claims that are untrue.

Fashion Greenwashing Example: A fashion brand falsely states that it uses 100% recycled materials or non-toxic dyes, or claims to hold certifications that it does not possess.

How to Spot it: Identifying fibbing can be challenging. If you doubt a brand’s claims, reach out to them directly and request specific information or evidence that supports their sustainability claims. Genuine brands will provide transparent answers.

7. Worshiping False Labels

What it is: Brands imply that they hold third-party certifications or verifications that they do not actually possess.

Fashion Greenwashing Example: A brand creates its own fake certification label, such as “Green Product” or “Guaranteed Ethical.”

How to Spot it: Look for reputable sustainability and ethical certifications like Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), B-Corp, and Fair Trade Certified. Use resources like Remake’s Directory or the Good On You directory to get a more holistic view of a brand’s credibility.

What if I Fall for Greenwashing in Fashion?

It is possible to be deceived by sustainability claims, even with thorough research. Due diligence and consumer awareness are essential, but it’s important to acknowledge that identifying greenwashing is challenging.

The lack of regulatory oversight in the fashion industry makes it easy for brands to exaggerate or lie about their sustainability practices. Advocating for stricter laws against greenwashing and establishing industry-wide standards for sustainability is crucial.

If you unintentionally support a brand engaged in greenwashing, use it as a learning opportunity. Take steps to educate yourself further and speak up by sharing your disappointment on social media or through direct communication with the brand. Putting pressure on corporations is vital to push for genuine sustainability in the fashion industry.

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