Can you remember the last time you were shopping and came across a product that not only appealed to you but also had an optimistic green tag on it? One that marked it as an environmentally conscious style choice for your wardrobe? I know I used to feel great about shopping when I picked up those products, but that was before I took a peek behind the curtain. Let's delve into the murky world of 'Greenwashing' and uncover the truth behind those seemingly sustainable claims.
In today's world, where the urgency to transform our consumption patterns and business practices is undeniable, terms like "sustainability," "consciousness," "responsibility," and "impact" are thrown around everywhere. On the surface, it seems like a positive trend, encouraging people to consider the environmental and social consequences of their choices as consumers. However, upon closer inspection, you'll discover a troubling reality: many of these eco-friendly claims are nothing more than an elaborate marketing hoax called greenwashing. Greenwashing involves wilfully misleading or deceiving consumers into believing that products and brands are more environmentally friendly than they are.
Let's do a quick exercise. Think about the stores you frequently shop at—H&M, Zara, Asos, Uniqlo, perhaps? These retail giants dominate the fashion industry, churning out billions of units of clothing, accessories, and footwear each year. However, behind their façade of sustainability lies a different truth.
Take H&M, for example—one of the largest manufacturers and sellers of mass-produced clothing worldwide, with over 3 billion units of apparel products manufactured every year. Recently, the brand faced a class action lawsuit, accused of misleading customers about its sustainability efforts. The plaintiffs claimed that H&M misled customers about the "sustainable materials" used in their 'Conscious' line. Additionally, H&M was accused of promoting overconsumption by suggesting customers could recycle their clothes at H&M stores in exchange for discount certificates, but in reality, the brand is only able to recycle less than 1% of the massive 16,000+ tonnes of old clothing collected through its in-store recycling initiative. Moreover, H&M faced criticism during the pandemic for last-minute order cancellations and non-payment of 1000s of garment factory workers in India for completed orders. Unfortunately, this is just one brand's story, and similar examples abound.
But why has greenwashing become such a prevalent practice? The answer lies in the fact that customers are becoming more conscious and inquisitive.
A 2022 market study conducted by McKinsey & Co. in the UK revealed that a significant portion (26%) of consumers in that market prioritized sustainability when making apparel and footwear purchases, with women comprising 58% of this group. The study also highlighted that brand websites and clothing tags were the primary sources of information for consumers seeking to make more conscious choices.
In India, a cursory analysis of consumer keyword searches using popular marketing tool semrush.com showed that words like "natural," "conscious," and "sustainable" were used hundreds of thousands of times in the past year alone during online shopping journeys.
It's evident that brands recognize the power of presenting customers with "green" choices. However, instead of implementing substantive changes to their supply chains and products, many rely on smoke and mirrors to maintain the illusion of sustainability.
If you’re looking to make more mindful fashion choices or if you’re looking to learn more about genuine sustainability in fashion, here’s a quick and easy guide to help you spot ‘Greenwashing’ tactics in fashion.
The Deceptive Charm of "Natural" and "Eco-Friendly":
Fashion brands often label their products as "natural" or "eco-friendly" to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers. However, these terms are ambiguously defined and lack standardization, enabling companies to exploit them for marketing purposes. The use of these terms alone does not guarantee sustainable production practices or materials. It is crucial for consumers to look beyond such claims and seek transparency regarding a brand's entire supply chain and manufacturing processes.
“Natural” means existing or procured from nature and “Eco-Friendly” is defined as that which causes no harm to the natural environment. It is impossible for any product to be 100% eco-friendly in it’s manufacturing process and lack of specific information regarding exactly which elements of a product might be natural or how it was made with minimal harm to the environment is now being acknowledged as deliberate misdirection by corporations.
In fact, the EU is moving to restrict use of any and all vague “green” terminology by brands in an effort to curb greenwashing and promote greater transparency.
The Illusion of "Recycled" and "Upcycled" Materials:
While recycling and upcycling are commendable practices, their mere presence in fashion does not automatically make a brand sustainable. ‘Recycling’ is defined as the process of turning waste materials into a new reusable material while ‘Upcycling’ means transforming by-products, waste materials, useless, or unwanted products into new materials or products perceived to be of greater quality. However, brands often use these terms interchangeably and they are very rarely transparent about exactly how their products incorporate either recycling or upcycling into the manufacturing process.
Recycling clothing back into clothing is also a fairly difficult process involving significant investment and access to advanced technologies. Some brands utilize recycled materials as a small fraction of their production while continuing to rely heavily on resource-intensive processes.
Another factor to keep in mind is the end of the product life cycle, even if a product has been made partially or completely out of recycled materials, what is the potential to recycle it again? Have we merely postponed its conclusion in a landfill? True sustainability requires a holistic approach that addresses the entire lifecycle of a product, including design, sourcing, manufacturing, and end-of-life considerations.
The Fallacy of "Organic" Fashion:
The term "organic" has gained popularity as a symbol of sustainability in the fashion industry. However, it is essential to recognize that organic does not necessarily equate to being environmentally friendly. While organic fibres may reduce the use of harmful chemicals in cultivation, the manufacturing and processing stages can still be energy-intensive and water-consuming and the transportation of organic materials across long distances can result in a significant carbon footprint. We must also question the extent of organic materials used in the manufacturing process.
Consider this, if an article of clothing is made of organic fibre but dyed and printed with harsh chemical dyes or embellished with single use plastic beads and sequins, what is the actual positive impact of that product? Therefore, it is crucial to consider the overall environmental impact of a product rather than relying solely on the organic label.
Unmasking "Green" Certifications:
Various certifications and labels exist in the fashion industry to indicate sustainable practices. However, not all certifications are created equal, and some may carry limited credibility. Brands can obtain certifications that focus on a single aspect of sustainability while neglecting others. It is essential for consumers to educate themselves about the credibility and rigor of different certifications and understand the specific criteria they address. Brands often use generic logos on their tags and labels that indicate the product as “Sustainable” but if they had the necessary certifications, the products would clearly have the logos of the respective certifying organizations on the labels.
The next time you’re out shopping, keep an eye out for some of these logos to know whether the product you are considering purchasing is genuinely good for the environment.
Here's the thing: I didn't write this post to shame big brands or the people who shop from them. In fact, I'm a customer myself, and I believe in working together with these brands to drive their sustainability initiatives forward. However, we can't ignore the rampant issue of greenwashing in the fashion industry. As consumers, we hold the power to see through the illusion.
By critically evaluating the claims made by brands and delving deeper into their sustainability practices, we can make more informed choices that align with our values. It's important to question these claims and have open discussions about them. Our collective voices can exert pressure and drive change at institutional and policy levels.
Remember, sustainability encompasses various factors beyond just eco-friendly materials. It includes resource consumption, manufacturing processes, labour conditions, and social responsibility. While we may have limitations such as cost and accessibility, we are also empowered to demand transparency, accountability, and genuine commitment from fashion brands.
In the meantime, if you want to quickly check the sustainability credentials of a brand before making a purchase, I recommend using a helpful resource like https://directory.goodonyou.eco/. While it may not be a comprehensive guide yet, they are continuously adding more brands to their directory.
Also, let's not forget the impact we can make on a personal level. Some of the most significant ways to be sustainable in our fashion choices is to reduce how much we buy, find creative ways to wear what we already own, and explore swapping or upcycling options instead of discarding items when we're done with them. Together, let's be conscious consumers and advocates for change. With our choices, conversations, and demands, we can shape a fashion industry that truly embraces sustainability.