The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined in 1986, back when television, radio and print media were the main channels of advertisement. Today, we are constantly exposed to brands trying to sell their products to us, and greenwashing has become more common, but also more subtle - especially in the fashion industry. But what exactly is greenwashing, why is it a problem, and how can you spot it?
What is greenwashing and why is it a problem?
According to Cambridge Dictionary, greenwashing is designed “to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.” While some greenwashing can be the unintentional result of a lack of awareness about what is really sustainable, it is often consciously carried out through a wide range of marketing campaigns. When we hear the term greenwashing, we might immediately think of big multinational corporations, their lies and coverups. But in recent years, greenwashing has become subtler, making it even harder for consumers to distinguish between truly sustainable brands and those that just want to seem green in order to increase sales.
This is problematic, as it not only covers up environmental issues and misleads customers but also makes things more difficult for brands that are actually focused on sustainability. Fortunately, there are a few ways to spot greenwashing and while it often requires a little bit of research, you will get better at detecting the telltale signs.
How to spot greenwashing
→ Sustainable collections & campaigns
In recent years, more and more fast-fashion retailers have started to introduce sustainable collections, advertising clothes made from organic or recycled materials. While this might seem amazing at first glance, keep in mind that these collections often only make up a tiny portion of the overall production. Unless a brand has set percentage targets to increase the amount of sustainable products in the near future and is truly working towards them, sustainable collections should be considered greenwashing.
Also, beware of brands that try to shift responsibility to their customers, for example by reminding them to buy less or donate/recycle the clothes at the end of their lives, all while continuing to mass-produce cheap clothing made from unsustainable materials.
→ Transparency instead of sustainability
Sustainability does not work without transparency. A growing number of companies are now disclosing information about their supply chain and some are proudly showcasing these transparency efforts in order to seem more sustainable. However, it is important to remember that transparency shows us if brands are disclosing information, it does not show us which brand is doing good, but who discloses the most information. As Fashion Revolution put it in their 2020 Transparency Index: ‘Transparency does not equal sustainability. Brands may be disclosing a lot of information about their policies and practices but this doesn’t mean they are acting in a sustainable or ethical manner.’
→ Misleading claims, targets & initiatives
A common way for brands to practice greenwashing is to ignore the impact of their business activities and instead focus on marginal improvements such as the use of recycling bins or the reduction of paper in their offices. Also keep an eye out for brands that promote their eco-friendly packaging as a way to minimise their impact on the environment, without having anything else to prove their efforts. Recycled or compostable packaging is great, but it’s definitely not enough for a brand to be truly sustainable. Look out for numbers that support claims and targets and find brands whose sustainability measures are focused on their business model and supply chain.
→ Adhering to environmental laws
Some brands even go so far as to paint themselves in a better light by emphasizing environmental campaigns that are actually mandated by law. The use of LED and energy-efficient lighting in stores and offices is a good example, as it is a requirement in some countries and most buildings already have this kind of lighting. It might be difficult to uncover this sort of greenwashing as it requires some knowledge about legal matters, but anything that does not require the business to actually improve its production operations should be met with scepticism.
How can you support sustainable fashion?
Production accounts for 70% of the fashion industry’s overall carbon footprint. Therefore, it’s important to look out for brands that practice a holistic approach and focus on the bigger picture instead of individual issues. Truly sustainable brands incorporate sustainability in every aspect of their business - from headquarters, to design, manufacturing, shipping and marketing.
One of the best things you can do as a consumer is to educate yourself. The better you are informed, the less likely you are to be deceived by brands that engage in greenwashing. A good place to start is Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index, which highlights information released by popular brands about their supply chains, production lines as well as social and environmental impact. Fair Wear Foundation and Worker Rights Consortium provide reports and updates on their investigations into the treatment of factory workers around the world. Finally, Good On You can help you understand the environmental impacts of different textiles.
At The Slow Label, we believe in the power of self-reflection to continuously do better. This is why we openly share our current shortcomings and action plans to combat those. You can read more about our Improvement Efforts here, find out who made your clothes or read more about the materials we use.
Fashion Revolution: Transparency
Vogue: Greenwashing in Fashion
McKinsey: Fashion On Climate Change Report