The green movement is booming, especially in the fashion industry. Consumers are realizing the disastrous impact fast fashion brands have on climate change, workers and farmers, animals on land and in the oceans.
Some fast fashion brands market themselves as eco-friendly when they are not. This is called greenwashing and serves to appeal to eco-conscious consumers. Let's a closer look at why greenwashing is such a common practice and what you can do about it.
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What is greenwashing?
Making misleading claims about the environmental impact of business activity is greenwashing. Trying to appear greener is what many fast fashion brands are doing.
They claim to reduce their environmental impact when in fact a large proportion of their activities remains detrimental to the planet.
I encourage you to read my thorough definition of greenwashing if you want to learn more about exactly what it is.
How do fast fashion brands do greenwashing
This is how greenwashing is made possible and how some fast fashion brands make a profit:
- Claiming a production is green by narrowing a set of attributes and hiding the rest.
- Committing to environmental protection without that proof to back it up.
- Using unverified labels or phrases with no inherent significance such as 100% green.
There is a lot of greenwashing going on in the fashion industry. In other industries as well such as personal care, food, and beverages, automobile, consumer electronics.
The advertising consultancy TerraChoice Environmental Marketing concluded in a study on greenwashing from 2006 and 2009 that within 2,219 products making green claims, 98% of them were guilty of greenwashing.
What you can do about greenwashing
Here some recommendations to deal with this greenwashing:
- Look for special words. When going out shopping, identify the claims that are potentially subject to greenwashing: pure, natural, earth-friendly, eco-friendly, organic, green, reduced emissions, sustainable development, carbon-neutral, plant-based, etc. These might be deceptive claims companies and fast fashion brands make to hide what is really going on behind the scenes.
- Do your research. Look supporting evidence on the companies websites and/or ask them to provide the proof for what they are claiming. You can always get more information by going to Google and looking up the products.
- Look for standards. When buying fashion, it is good to know what certification standards are relevant to testify to the eco-friendliness of clothes. The audit from third party certifications checks authenticity and reliability. Claiming a product is 100% organic without any supportive information is misleading.
The best way to avoid getting greenwashed is to investigate to separate the companies that are truly green from those that are only pretending. Since it is not possible to combine sustainability and maximizing profit, greenwashing is everywhere.
You can find here the best eco-friendly certification standards for textiles to look for when shopping for sustainable clothing.
More and more consumers are willing to pay more for eco-friendly products. So fast fashion brands benefit from a green image. They use greenwashing to enjoy higher profit margins.
Is greenwashing illegal
Greenwashing is illegal. It is an extremely unethical practice. Fast fashion brands use it to solicit consumers' trust and make more money.
The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has warned about this marketing practice. This agency protects consumers from unfair and deceptive practices. The FTC developed the “Green Guides” in 1992 and revised them in 2012 to help businesses avoid misleading claims. Read the complete FTC's "Green Guides" guidelines on their official website here.
Greenwashing is not a recent phenomenon. Already in the 1980s, the demand for eco-friendly products was rising and cases of greenwashing were often reported. Since this date, presenting a green image has become more and more strategic.
Greenwashing and fast fashion
The fashion industry is no exception regarding greenwashing. Brands and retailers often claim that some garments are natural, organic, bio or recycled. But only a portion of the materials used actually is (fibers and fabrics, trims, tags, labels, and packaging).
Some fast fashion brands employ farmers and workers from the poorest countries. They exploit local communities without any social or environmental stewardship. Garments are made under poor working conditions, without renewable energy, and using toxic chemicals (dyes, fertilizers, pesticides).
Some fast fashion brands claim that these are rare cases. Even one case is already too many. And companies only show what consumers want to see.
If you aren't totally convinced why fast fashion is so bad, check out the top reasons to avoid fast fashion in my article here.
Fast fashion brands accused of greenwashing
Following fast fashion brands and retailers have been accused of greenwashing in the past or recently:
- H&M with its Circulose fabric. Circulose is a new type of fabric made from up-cycled clothing and fashion waste. H&M have plans to only recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030.
- Boohoo with its wool coat. Wool is not ethical, nor animal-friendly, nor sustainable, nor environmentally friendly. Boohoo planned to ban all wool in their clothes before reversing their decision a few hours later.
- & Other Stories with its production claims. & Other Stories pretends its products are created in Swedish factories under labor protection laws. In fact, after they are designed in Sweden but produced in China, Bulgaria, and Bangladesh.
- Primark with its child labor scandal. Primark is able to offer such low prices because of its workers from the poorest countries. Primark launched a collection of denim made from 100% sustainable cotton sourced in India and Pakistan.
- ASOS with its "Responsible edit". ASOS is the fast-fashion giant introducing new recycled products in its product portfolio. The use of recycled material should allow for saving water and energy.
- Zara with its vague sustainability claims. Zara launched eco-friendly collections such as “Join Life” and pledged to stop using toxic chemicals by 2020. Much like H&M “conscious collection”, using materials like “organic cotton”, “recycled wool” and Tencel isn't enough to reduce its environmental impact when the large majority of its activities remains disastrous for the planet.
Unfortunately, plenty of other high street brands produce their garments with the cheapest labor in the world with no care for the environment. Progress is being made in the fashion industry. But changes need to happen a lot faster.
If you are trying to quit fast fashion for good, but find it difficult, we have compiled my best tips to stop wearing fast fashion in this article here.
What other cases of greenwashing have you seen?
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About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.