Are Fashion Brands Actually Becoming More Sustainable, Or Is It Just Greenwashing?

Over the past year or two sustainability has become a buzzword in the fashion industry (well, really everywhere, but we’re just going to look at fashion here). As ecoactivism has risen across the globe, consumers have started to express their concerns over where their clothes are coming from, what they’re made of, and how they’re made. According to a 2019 McKinsey & Co. study, online searches for “sustainable fashion” tripled between 2016 and 2019. And according to Nielsen’s 2015 Global Corporate Sustainability Report, 66 percent of consumers would spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand.

As a result, brands have been touting new sustainable fabrics or dedicating themselves to becoming carbon neutral left and right. But are they really living up to their claims, or are they just greenwashing to increase sales?

First, let’s actually define greenwashing. Environmental activist Jay Westervelt coined the term in a 1986 essay after noting that hotels encouraged guests to reuse their towels supposedly to “save the environment,” while, in most cases, making little or no effort toward reducing energy waste or making any significant positive impact to the environment. Broadly speaking, greenwashing is a deceptive marketing technique where companies use misleading or false claims to promote themselves as “green” when their actions prove differently or exaggerate their true benefits to the environment.

In some cases, greenwashing is unintentional and results from a lack of knowledge about what sustainability truly is. However,  in most cases, brands are using the label “sustainable” to distract from or cover up their other unsustainable practices. 

Christie Miedema, campaign coordinator of Dutch-based Clean Clothes Campaign, told Fashion United that brands have become experts in “eco messaging” with “one-off collections or clever initiatives to make it look like they are doing something” without actually making significant or systemic  changes to their operations.

For example, both Zara and H&M have their own “sustainable” lines of clothing, called #JoinLife and Conscious collections, respectively. Both are also fast fashion brands. So while people will applaud their sustainable efforts, their businesses are built on a fast turnover of styles, don’t disclose pertinent information about their factories, have worker’s rights violations on record, and are known for low-end (essentially “disposable”) garments. Making a supplementary line that is “sustainable” doesn’t negate their essence and business strategy. Their sustainable efforts are shallow and for marketing purposes to pacify consumers and casual sustainable supporters.  In the end, these tactics just end up being tacked on top of everything they normally do with no lasting or tangible impact.

Another big trend is for companies to buy carbon offsets to negate their carbon emissions. While offsets are indeed  important because they provide funding for sustainable initiatives, organizations, and projects, they don’t do anything to reduce the emissions companies currently make. It is far more important and impactful to support  companies that are trying to reduce their emissions, while also  buying offsets. 

Leading eco-friendly companies will integrate sustainability into everything they do—not just one collection or a handful of pieces. They will integrate sustainability into every aspect of their company, from the energy usage and waste at their headquarters to design practices, manufacturing, shipping, sales, etc. If these practices are not in place already, they commit to having sustainable practices in the future, setting goals that can be backed by science. They measure and are committed to reducing environmental impacts every year and they share these goals publicly.  And then they back up their promises with actions.

Most companies, on the other hand, “will only invest in sustainability when sustainability is driving efficiency,” Elizabeth Cline, author of “The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good” and a well-known fashion journalist, told Greenbiz.

In McKinsey & Co.’s study, half of the industry players stated they want at least half of their products to be made with sustainable materials by 2025. But at the same time, companies  face issues such as the cost and availability of sustainable materials, cost of research for developing more sustainable practices, and so on. 

So, where do we go from here? 

The first big hurdle is transparency. Brands need to be explicit about all their practices in every part of their supply chain. If a brand claims to be using “more sustainably-sourced cotton,” for example, that phrase, “sustainably-sourced,” alone cannot be enough. Instead brands need to detail what makes this sourcing more sustainable, and provide a collection of data to hold them accountable for the sustainability claims they make. 

One way to provide this accountability is through a comprehensive certification program across the fashion industry. One common thread among brands that are pioneers in the sustainable space is they are certified companies or use certified materials. For example, they use cotton that meets the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or Oeko-Tex Standard. They are members of the Fairwear Foundation or a Certified B Corporation, or their products have a Cradle 2 Cradle certification. These are  just a few common certification programs that are proven effective that deliver a dramatic and positive impact to fashion companies sustainability results. 

A further step to be taken is to create a guideline that brands must follow to be considered sustainable–essentially a checklist that brands must tick all the boxes in order to get sustainability creds. One reason why greenwashing is such an issue is that there isn’t an explicit definition for sustainable fashion and there isn’t a common set of standards for companies to abide by. By making the criteria clear, information will become transparent to consumers as to companies true sustainable practices. And by having a set criteria, the industry may even be able to be regulated in the same way that the FDA regulates the food industry—certain fabrics won’t be allowed, brands can only make sustainable claims unless they prove that it’s made with renewable resources, etc. 

The United Nations does already have what are called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which many eco-conscious brands look at when trying to decide what sustainable tactics to implement into their supply chain. And then there are retailers such as Fashionkind, which only carries ethical and sustainable brands that must meet its own strict set of criteria, and brands like Endless Clothing Supply Co., which has its own Brand Sustainability Maturity Model (available on its website, too, so other brands can use it as a tool), and lands in the “leading” category for almost all sustainable criteria.  But the fact still remains: there are no universal standards. 

At the same time, we can’t put the full responsibility on these brands in the fashion industry alone. We, as consumers, have a large role to play, too. One of the biggest problems in the fashion industry is that there are just too many articles of clothing out there. And that is due to overconsumption. If we call brands out and refuse to buy from them unless they become accountable and implement sustainable practices, we should be able to make some change ourselves. Because companies are driven by profits, once we put our money where our mouths are, they might actually do the same. 

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