Greenwashing in the fashion industry
The world is becoming more conscious of sustainable practices, and not just in the fashion industry.
Terms like “green”, “eco-friendly”, and “renewable” are found in practically every company’s mission statement now, with businesses investing heavily in sustainability…
… or are they?
What is greenwashing?
Coined by environmentalist Jay Westervelt, way back in 1986, the term ‘greenwashing’ refers to misleading advertisements or false claims by companies, that suggests they are doing more for the environment than they actually are.
It’s basically a tactic that brands use to appear more sustainable than they are in reality, and it’s a practice that’s on the rise.
According to a study by Changing Markets Foundation, 60% of the environmental claims of the biggest British and European fashion brands could be classed as “unsubstantiated” and “misleading”.
Why do brands greenwash?
Sustainability is big business, with more and more consumers claiming they will prioritise eco-friendly brands before others.
And while a greener future is inevitable, it takes time. Policies and practices need to change throughout the supply chain, profits will fall, and costs will rise.
Meanwhile, brands want to send the message out that they’re already doing their bit to stop Climate Change, and so spend millions on campaigns and marketing strategies to convince the world they’re eco-friendly.
How do you spot greenwashing?
While there’s no way to know for sure if a company is greenwashing without some thorough research, there are signs to look out for.
Certain buzzwords are a good indicator that a brand isn’t really doing much behind the scenes when it comes to the environment.
Things like “eco-friendly packaging”, “energy-efficient”, and “eco or sustainable range” are all red flags when it comes to greenwashing.
A company can boast about replacing all their lightbulbs with LED energy-saving ones, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still poisoning rivers in India with chemical dyes.
One major thing to look out for is a sustainable clothing range from a brand. This is usually only a small collection that is promoted heavily, but in reality, is only a small part of the business.
Examples of brands caught greenwashing
During last year’s Earth Day, H&M announced its new sustainability ambassador, Maisie Williams (Arya Stark from Game of Thrones) and launched “Looop Island” on the Nintendo game Animal Crossing to promote its in-store recycling machine.
This is a great example of greenwashing, especially appealing to the younger generation as a sustainable, ethical brand. The reality, of course, is that H&M is the pioneer of Fast Fashion, one of the fashion industry’s biggest problems and one of the biggest polluters in the world.
H&M produce over 3 Billion items of clothing a year, with an astonishing 85% of these ending up in a landfill. A video game does absolutely nothing to stop that.
Chinese retailer SHEIN recently hired a Head of Sustainability, which sounds promising, but is more of a PR stunt to portray itself as concerned about the environment.
In reality, SHEIN’s entire business model is built on labour and environmental exploitation. From hazardous chemicals to carbon emissions to microplastics, SHEIN is making zero effort to help the planet or reduce its impact on the environment.
On top of that, brands mass-producing such cheap, poorly-made clothing perpetuate a throwaway fashion culture simply by existing. But with a massive following of the younger generation on social media, they are experts in greenwashing.
What can be done about greenwashing in the fashion industry?
Consumer protection agencies say the fashion industry is among the worst offenders of greenwashing, so how are they getting away with it?
Sustainability is relatively new, and with all things novel, the laws and rules are slow to catch up.
Part of the problem is, terms like “ethical” and “eco-friendly” have no clear, quantifiable definition, and so brands can not be held accountable by law. Another reason they get away with it is quite simply because the public doesn’t know it’s happening.
Research suggests that if more people did know about greenwashing in the fashion industry, it would have an effect on the problem.
In the UK, the Competition and Market Authority (CMA) watchdog says more than half of consumers take these sustainability claims into account when making purchasing decisions. If half the population stopped buying from a brand because they were caught greenwashing, then things would change pretty quickly.
But the law is catching up too. In the United States, there are calls for the Federal Trade Commission to review its Green Guides, which outline rules against greenwashing and haven’t been updated since 2012.
The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) released five “rules of thumb” for environmental claims and began its investigation into the 170 largest local businesses, including 70 fashion brands.
In the UK, the CMA published draft guidance on misleading environmental claims and will now consult businesses and consumers, hoping to understand how those claims are being made and understood.
All changes in laws, attitudes, and the zeitgeist take time, and in the space between those changes, those who put profit before people will always find ways to exploit the situation.
As a manufacturer, you can only do your part, stay on the right side of history, and put real sustainable practices into place as soon as possible.
There are big changes ahead and it’s a complex area, but when handled correctly, a brand can come out on top in every way.
We have helped hundreds of businesses change over the five decades we’ve been working in this industry, and a move to a greener world is just another change we help our clients deal with.
Smaller things like recycled packaging are a good start, but that’s just a drop in the ocean when it comes to pollution.
If you would like to make the move to more eco-friendly packaging, then please contact us today. Our friendly and experienced team will be happy to help in any way they can, especially when it comes to sustainable packaging.