An ugly shade of green: fashion’s greenwashing problem  

The conscious effort to purchase sustainable fashion often comes with the feelings of pride and hopefulness. Cute clothes that are helping the environment? It’s a win-win. But what if you’ve been lied to all this time? What if the brands you trust to be doing the right thing by the planet, are doing a lot more harm than you think?  

Someone the clothing industry are moving towards more sustainable practices, but others are just saying they are. Photo: via Pixabay

It is no big secret that the environmental cost of making clothes is high. The production of textiles is a major contributor to climate change. According to a British report, the industry  produces about 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) every year. The House of Commons Environmental audit committee notes that that is more than all global international flights and maritime shipping combined.  

It’s these types of statistics that have led to an increased demand for fashion brands to make their products in a more sustainable manner. As the younger generation grows more concerned for the future of our planet, they are pushing for environmentally friendly fashion. A 2020 sustainability report showed that younger people were the biggest buyers of products from companies that follow ethical and sustainable guidelines.  

As the push for sustainable fashion grows, companies’ advertising becomes more environmentally focused. However, just because a company says it or its products are sustainable, does not necessarily mean they are. They may be ‘greenwashing’.  

The general definition of greenwashing is when a company advertises its ethical or sustainable credentials with little to no evidence, or when its environmental record says otherwise. 

Founder of American fashion retailer Eco-Stylist, Garik Himebaugh, believes that greenwashing is one of the most persuasive advertising schemes in the fashion industry.   

“Even in communities where people really care (about sustainability), there are still forms of greenwashing that fool a lot of people,” he says. 

“Companies are trying to tap into the conscious consumer and have them feel good about their purchases.”  

As companies are getting away with selling harmful products that consumers believe to be sustainable, many don’t see the need to change their policies for the better.  

A 2019 report conducted by sustainable support foundation Changing Markets found that 40 per cent of all fashion companies globally are yet to take sustainability seriously through setting targets and reviewing their supply chains.   

There are ways to spot greenwashing when buying clothes. Many companies engaged in greenwashing will use sustainability-related buzzwords in their advertising, such as “eco-friendly”, “natural”, and “green”. According to DownToEarth.org, these words have no legal definition and companies do not need to follow any policies or requisites in order to use them in their campaigns. Seeing those words on a label doesn’t mean it’s a demonstration of a brand’s environmental policies.    

Another way to look for greenwashing is by a company’s sustainability timeline.  

“Are their goals immediate? Brands will come out and say, ‘we have a 2030 plan to be more sustainable’ and it’s like, what are they doing now to achieve these goals?” Himebaugh says.  

In order to call out greenwashing companies, he says it’s important consumers take some responsibility to help call out greenwashing companies.  “If they want to make a difference, they can research companies before buying their products,” he suggests. 

However, according to John Condilis, managing director of clothing brand Nobody Denim in Melbourne, the onus is on businesses.   

“The best thing a company can do is be transparent,” he says. 

“I don’t think it’s a consumer’s responsibility to research brands, because they’re just going to get fed up with it. It is the integrity and honesty of brands to be transparent that will help them identify greenwashing.”  

Transparency is a key factor behind his brand’s accreditation by Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA).  

“We do tours for some universities and schools, where students can come and see the factory where we make all our jeans,” Condilis said. 

“We acknowledge their feedback, and we accept constructive criticism and opportunities.”  

Many well-known fast-fashion brands scored below 10 per cent on the  2020 Fashion Transparency Index. Most unethical brands are not transparent about their production processes, making it easy for them to greenwash their products.  

But Condilis also recognises why some brands do it.  

“It’s a competitive tactic. If they see competitors labelling their apparel as eco-friendly, they’re going to think ‘oh no, we’ve got to do something quickly or otherwise they’re going to take market share,” he says.  

He believes many greenwashing brands are striving to eventually become more sustainable, but says companies should review their policies before they claim green credentials.  
 
“To be a sustainable company you have to start internally first, not just do what the market tells you, you should be doing,” Condilis says. 

 With rapid concerns for climate change and the future of our planet, greenwashing is going to continue within the fashion industry. If you are wanting to buy from environmentally sustainable brands, these tips can help you identify and stay away from unethical, greenwashing companies. You can still feel all the pride of purchasing cute, sustainable clothing, without being completely blindsided.  

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