The deception of greenwashing in fast fashion

Terms such as ‘ethical’ or ‘eco-friendly’ have no legal significance and encourages lack of accountability

By Mehar Mehar
Published: Tuesday 16 February 2021

Buzzwords such as sustainable, ecofriendly, natural and green are common on the labels of everything we consume be it food or clothes. We, however, need to question whether businesses taking notice are genuinely encouraging conscious brands or merely 'performing' sustainability.

Greenwashing in fashion is on the rise, making it difficult for individuals to know whether they are consuming responsibly or hooked on to misleading practices.

The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined by environmentalist Jay Westervelt in 1986 which refers to misleading advertisements or false claims by companies that suggest they are doing more for the environment than they actually are.

Such practices deceive customers with claims that are not backed by evidence and bear social, ethical and environmental repercussions.

The fast fashion industry has been a major culprit of this malpractice. They have often been found to use climate crisis as a means of marketing without pursuing a fundamental shift in its business model.

Getting away with it

The most significant loophole in sustainability is its lack of a clear, quantifiable definition. Terms such as 'ethical' or 'eco-friendly' have no legal significance. This encourages the lack of accountability of fashion brands. 

Absence of empirical data and government-subsidised studies on the impact of fashion also poses a hurdle.  

Another reason contributing to greenwashing is insufficient public awareness and education around the harmful practices the industry embraces, allowing companies to continue spewing false information.

Fast fashion businesses merely tack a 'sustainable' line onto their supply chain, which inherently is hypocritical since fast fashion can never be sustainable. Moreover, it tricks customers into evaluating brands as more sustainable, simultaneously fuelling the fast fashion business model.

The big fish

Several independent brands are reinventing themselves as genuinely conscious of the environment. Big brands, however, use the vast profits generated through cheap, exploitative clothing to produce enormous marketing budgets to promote 'green' collections.

Unfortunately, creating an add-on sustainability agenda to their overall business model, which relies on exploitative and unsustainable supply chain, cannot ultimately tackle the larger problems of textile waste and climate change.

In April 2019, Swedish fashion giant Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) introduced its ‘Conscious Collection’ featuring leather-like Pinatex products, made from orange peelings and pineapple leaves.

However, one can question Pinatex's legitimacy as 'sustainable' and 'eco-friendly' since it contains plastic and petroleum-based agents that offset any probable positive, eco-friendly impact of utilising fruit fibres and makes it non-biodegradable.

It can be criticised that H&M's new line has therefore engaged with surface-level sustainability, a mere toe-dip into the prevailing cultural dialogue on the climate crisis and surmounting textile waste before returning to business-as-usual.

Similarly, fast fashion brands like Primark, disreputably known for its child labour scandal, ASOS, Zara and Boohoo are also a part of the broader fast fashion companies' circle-jumping on the sustainability trend.

No holistic change

The fashion industry has as many as 52 micro-seasons or one new trend a week. The extent and swiftness, with which clothes are produced, discarded and possibly reproduced through re-emerging fashion trends lead to enormous textile waste.

Major fashion corporations absolve themselves of the responsibility of handling or treating this waste. Instead, they introduce the sustainability criteria through greenwashing to promote mindless consumerism that makes customers feel good about themselves.

With this, sustainability becomes synonymous with 'eco-friendly' at the expense of essential economic, health, social, and cultural facets. The industry's reluctance to tackle sustainability holistically and resorting to cherry-picking to fulfil its agenda, is more damaging to the ecosystem than beneficial.

Arguably, 'sustainability' by these fast fashion brands does not ensure reforms in garment-producing factories for better conditions and wages. Neither does it involve resilience in their sustainability effort when seeking to mass-produce 'sustainable' clothing.

For instance, ASOS claims that it supports ‘Cotton made in Africa’ (CmiA), an initiative to uplift the condition of farmers in the region. However, while the company claims to offer crucial agricultural training and business understanding, farmers are not taught how to diversify their income in a risk-prone climate and exist independently from the western fashion giant's profits and losses.

Identifying greenwashing

While navigating and identifying insidious greenwashing can be overwhelmingly difficult, a fundamental rule of thumb would be to see whether a brand promotes sustainability as an add-on rather than a core to its business model.

One needs to look out for numbers, including facts and figures backed by science instead of vague words. For instance, one could question what percentage of a certain brand's 'sustainably made' or 'eco-friendly' products are made with recycled materials or what quantifiable objectives have these brands listed publicly.

Brands also often promote greenwashing by claiming to use natural degradable fibres like viscose, rayon and bamboo. It is, however, important to understand how these materials are sourced to determine their closed-loop sustainability and trade-offs.

For instance, while bamboo is a fast-growing fibre, it is frequently exposed to harmful pesticides and chemicals while turning into the fabric, making it very polluting. Similarly, viscose can contribute to deforestation unless it is extracted from a certified source. Vegan does not mean sustainable either as it is made from oil, making it environmentally damaging.

Checking for various certifications like Bluesign, Cradle to Cradle Certified, Fair Trade Textiles Standard, Global Organic Textile Standard and Organic Content Standards, where each seeks to offer an approved standard across the supply chain, is vital.

Meanwhile, Fair Wear Foundation and Worker Rights Consortium can help provide reports and updates on various investigations looking at the treatment of factory workers globally.

Despite the pervasive greenwashing, many fashion brands have genuinely attempted to spread their message of sustainability within the broader community. We can begin by looking at Everlane, a direct-to-consumer brand which pioneered the concept of "radical transparency". This method charts out the cost of labour, materials and the company's profit margin for each item.

Patagonia has been offering to repair and buyback programs to encourage a circular economy, ensuring protection of the environment and people working or interacting with the company.

Similarly, despite its drawbacks, Nike has considerably improved its supply chains over many years, using innovation as the key driver for sustainability.

Indian brands like Doodlage working with eco-friendly materials, such as organic cotton, corn fabric, banana fabric and discarded textile from large manufacturers and many other national and international brands, have followed suit.

And yet, according to the 2019 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report, sustainability measures in the fashion industry seem to be slowing down rather than fast-tracking to tackle the climate crises and surmounting textile waste.

Perhaps more companies could consider Nike's successful approach, which involves increasing R&D expenditure instead of marketing, thereby decreasing costs and increasing long-term margins, while promoting circular economy simultaneously. On the bright side, significant R&D innovations are already underway.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.