7 Ways to Spot Greenwashing In The Fashion Industry

Making eco-friendly choices when purchasing clothes can feel confusing as it is. But, what if I told you, you were being lied to? Manipulated and deceived. Right under your nose, in the form of greenwashing.

As we’ve entered an era of environmental consciousness, there’s no doubt many companies have begun making significant changes to minimize their global impact. But, many have also used the climate crisis to their marketing advantage.

Coined in the 1980s by Jay Westervelt, greenwashing is a term used a lot within sustainable fashion discussion.

Referring to a company who is misleading its consumers by making themselves appear more environmentally friendly than they are. And it happens a lot!

As the average fashion consumer has become more conscious of the impact, their purchases are having on the world today.

With Forbes reporting that 87% of individuals would buy a product that benefited the environment if they had the opportunity, and were also more likely to talk to a friend about the brand (increasing their “purchasing power”[1]). 

Big fashion brands have had to change their actions to continue appealing to this dominating market. And it seems they will do this at any cost, even if it means a great deal of manipulation.

But, how do you spot greenwashing?

Today, apps such as Good on You have done the research for you (doing a great job of rating brands on how sustainable they are).

It is essential as a conscious consumer to be aware of what is out there. So, when looking out for greenwashing, remember this is a marketing technique.

So, most companies use the same or similar methods of manipulation. In 2009, TerraChoice called this the 7 Sins of Greenwashing after finding 98% of products from retailers in the UK, North America, and Australia had at least one of the following 7 features[2]

1. The hidden trade-off

This is when a company labels products as environmentally friendly based on a small set of characteristics while ignoring the more significant environmental impact.

We see this within ‘green’ campaigns that make a company appear eco-friendly while creating these products has a minimal positive impact.

Take viscose; despite being plant-based, there will still be vast amounts of biodiversity damage when relying on this material for mass production.

Vegan leather is another example here. Initially, it may appear a great sustainable choice, but in reality, the material is usually plastic-based.

The result of this is that during production, it needs enormous amounts of water and energy. Then will later release toxic chemicals, have a much shorter life span, and never fully biodegrade!

2. No proof

I’m sure we have all heard companies shouting about sustainability or sharing their code of conduct to ensure they appear transparent and eco-friendly.

In reality, they provide no proof that they are actually doing anything – deadly sin number 2.

Their ecological statements have no readily available supporting evidence or third-party certification past taking their word for it.

An example of this is when brands offer no information about their supply chain outside of the UK.

Why?

Because fast fashion brands rely on outsourcing cheap labour from abroad and are built on the exploitation of materials and those who work for them.

3. Vagueness

Going hand in hand with no proof is vagueness.

This refers to all those terms thrown around with a lack of elaboration that consumers can easily misunderstand.

For example, they are drawing people in with capsule sustainable collections with names such as responsible edit or conscious collection, that don’t mean anything.

They have little detail about how they are sustainable or the source of the material.

They’re nothing more than creative marketing to give the consumer the impression they are eco-friendlier than they are!

4. Irrelevance

This is all the information presented alongside a brand to make it appear more ethical when really, they are doing the bare minimum but just shouting about it louder.

For example, many codes of conduct will outline that workers are paid the minimum living wage in their country.

Or that essential health and safety measures are put in place. But, this is the law. It is not a unique feature of the brand, and so, they aren’t doing anything more than what is required of them by law!

5. Lesser of two evils

This is the swaps or compensating actions a company makes to appear more sustainable.

However, when you look deeper, their choices are still harmful to the environment. Recycled polyester is a common one here.

Yes, it is recycled, but the simple fact is, it’s plastic.

It is still going to release microparticles through the wash. With over a third of microplastics in the ocean coming from synthetic fabrics [3], there is a continued risk of damage to the marine ecosystem.

Another one?

The claim of being carbon neutral. In reality, this usually means planting more trees to justify the scale of a brand’s carbon footprint, not making any real changes to decrease it.

6. Fibbing

Or simply lying.

You wouldn’t think it happens, but it does. Most recently, the pay-up campaign bought attention to Boohoo garment workers in Leicester.

They were not even paid minimum wage. Boohoo responded by claiming they knew nothing about this.

But this is hard to believe and was most likely a lie to reduce further damage to their image.

This also happens with brand take-back schemes. You know, those marketing campaigns that give customers vouchers if they trade in their old clothes?

This is all promoted as encouraging a closed-loop fashion system, but this isn’t true. All it is doing is encouraging consumers to stay loyal to a brand and ensuring they continue to buy new with their earnt vouchers.

7. Worshipping False Labels

And finally, there are the tag lines, images, and branding that imply third-party support when there is none. Remember vagueness and no proof that we mentioned earlier?

This is their sister. This can be seen when brands suggest their clothing is eco-preferred or have vegan-friendly products but do not have any certification to back this up. They expect their consumers to take their word for it.

Greenwashing Summary

So, while greenwashing can be hard to spot, and unfortunately happens in every industry, just remember to keep asking questions.

Don’t believe everything you see and read between the lines. Knowing these 7 deadly sins as consumers, we can take more conscious control of our shopping habits.

We ultimately have the most significant influence.

Head over to our previous post-Sustainable Fashion: 5 Easy Steps Towards An Eco-Friendly Wardrobe for more ways to keep your wardrobe sustainable.

By Rosie Clack-Walsh

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesnycouncil/2018/11/21/do-customers-really-care-about-your-environmental-impact/?sh=703b27f2240d

[2] https://betterworldapparel.com/learn/the-7-sins-of-greenwashing/

[3] https://inews.co.uk/news/environment/third-microplastic-ocean-pollution-shedding-clothes-575003

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