Can’t tell if a fashion brand is actually sustainable or just trying to capitalise off the climate crisis? Whether you’re looking at a decades-old fast fashion retailer, a cult favourite, or a new kid on the block, the same steps can be taken to sniffing out a greenwashing gimmick.
We rounded up a few tips and looked at a few common cases so you can start calling out brands for their bullsh*t now.
In a desperate effort to keep up with the times, every other day we get wind of yet another fashion brand launching a new sustainable line or a radical new sustainability policy. The news gets plastered everywhere, from websites to social media with some brands even make a bigger deal out of it with fancy press releases, launch parties, and all that jazz. While we’re all for brands making these kinds of changing and integrating sustainable practices into their businesses, climate change is not a “phase” and being properly environmentally-friendly isn’t that easy. To help you differentiate between the good guys and those who are just greenwashing, we put together a guide for you that will help you better understand if a brand that just ran a green ad on your Instagram is really serious about the climate crisis, or if they’re just after your money. You’ll find a few case studies at the end, too.
At this point, we’ve heard “sustainable” so many times that it’s hardly surprising anymore. Image credit: XKCD
1. The “Earth Day” special
You know the drill. Earth Day rolls around and suddenly fashion brands are turning their profile pictures green, posting environmentally-related photos, and then trying to sell you something surrounding it. The really obvious ones are when a brand simply changes its products to have more nature-related colour schemes (green, blue, etc.). Or when they offer you a free reusable bag (for you to bring the next time you come back, which they’re hoping will be soon) when you make a purchase above $100. Sometimes they’ll offer out metal straws, and if they’re feeling generous, a mug too. The less obvious ones are when a product or collection is actually sustainable (think eco-friendly materials or ethically-made with fair wages.) Then you’ll need to consider the next few things…
2. Are they in it for the long run or is it just a short-term marketing ploy?
There is a difference between greenwashing and taking steps towards sustainability. If a brand has just dropped a green collection, check if they have any further plans to become more sustainable in the works. Are they committed to really keep it up, or is this just a one-time offer? Have they committed to future targets like reducing their environmental footprint, obtaining materials certification (e.g. Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)), or taken any steps towards climate neutrality?
Even still, it’s worth looking into how committed they really are, or are they just saying they are? It’s hard to prove that a brand is working on something, and we’d be hard-pressed to find brands that regularly publicise the steps that they’re taking but one way around this is checking if there are any details (because if they are taking steps, most brands would be proud enough to make them public). Obviously, it’s dubious if a brand simply states that they’re constantly on the lookout for more environmentally-friendly fabrics to source for our products. So look for tangible goals, like concrete dates and quantifiable goals. Look also for specific steps, detailing how they’re going to achieve these goals.
3. Having multiple conscious collections doesn’t cut it. What’s their bigger picture?
Perhaps a brand has churned out a few organic, vegan, or recycled lines for a while now. But the rest of their brand is still unsustainable, and it doesn’t seem like that’s going to change. Producing many thoughtful collections doesn’t make a brand truly sustainable. The times that we live in now are times which require a massive overhaul – which means changing the way the overall brand works. We’re looking at slow and even regenerative fashion, seasonless classics, and anti-consumption tactics. Does a brand look like it’s moving in that direction, and are they making plans to do so?
We’re talking cutting seasonal sales and ending what the fashion industry has done the best – convincing you to buy what you don’t need. Fast fashion retailers are the best at this. They’ll make you browse through a website on a Friday night, capitalise on how great you’re feeling, and make you realise that you need all these new clothes you didn’t even want. Truly sustainable brands don’t need to drop a new collection every week or hold a sale every holiday season.
4. Do sweat the small stuff and do away with the excesses
The “small stuff” adds up, so watch out for those, too. According to Fast Company, in the US alone, around 165 billion packages are shipped out every year. E-commerce has revolutionised the way we consume, and now we’re drowning in packaging. Switching from plastic to cardboard is a start, but deforesting trees is the last thing we should be doing now. Recycled materials are usually better because that means nothing new is made. Remember: compostable, recyclable and biodegradable are great, but not all of us have access to appropriate facilities. Even down to the packing peanuts, the tags lined on shirts, and the receipts – think about how many parcels a brand ships out daily and about how much waste that contributes to.
Behold, Patagonia – the gold standard.
5. Eco-friendly fabrics: a quick and easy guide
Just because it’s organic cotton, doesn’t make it green. Eco-friendly fabrics are about so much more than that. In an ideal world, they should check all the boxes – vegan, regenerative or recycled, completely recyclable, etc. But of course, even Patagonia, the gold standard for sustainable fashion, or Reformation, the holy grail of ethical girls everywhere, even they don’t check every single box for a truly eco-friendly fabric. Here are a couple of ways to assess just how green a fabric really is:
1. SOURCE: Is it sourced from animals? (Note: sometimes vegan fabrics are less eco-friendly than their animal-sourced alternatives, so check if the vegan option is sustainable too.) Is it made from recycled, waste or deadstock fabrics? Does it involve growing a crop that involves degenerative farm practices?
2. FOOTPRINT: During the production process of an item of clothing, how much water and energy does it use? If there are by-products, how are they managed or disposed of?
3. LIFE CYCLE IMPACT: Does the brand provide the best care practices? Does caring for the product (i.e. washing, drying, etc.) require a lot of water and energy? Or in the case of polyester, does it release microplastics?
4. END OF LIFE: Is the product ultimately recyclable (mixed blend fabrics are usually hard to separate and recycle)? Does the brand provide take-back programmes where they genuinely recycle the products? Is the fabric designed to last at least #30Wears?
6. Bonus: check for labour policies
Thanks to Fashion Revolution’s #WhoMadeMyClothes movement, labour policies around the world have been improving. The Action, Collaboration, Transformation (ACT) initiative is one that unites international brands, retailers, manufacturers, and trade unions to address the issue of living wages specifically in the fashion industry. BUT, committing to the ACT is one thing, actually implementing a living wage for all garment workers is another.
Sometimes, it’s impossible to know if a brand is seriously committed to paying living wages and ensuring ethical conditions or not (that is until a story breaks and everyone starts boycotting the brand for all of five seconds.) That’s why it’s important to not just to do some snooping, but also to ask the right questions.
CASE STUDY: H&M’s Conscious Collection
H&M is getting some heat from Norway because the country’s Marketing Control Act outlines illegal practices. One of them includes misleading customers. To them, H&M’s Conscious collection appears to be more sustainable than it actually is. Let’s take a look at the facts. Their most recent collection dropped in April, and everyone raved about the innovative fabrics they brought to the table. Among them were Piñatex, Bloom Foam and Orange Fiber.
Let’s start with Piñatex, a vegan alternative to leather. Compared to animal-based leather, it is indeed cruelty-free. Compared to petroleum-based, faux leather, it is also far less polluting to the environment. To make it, the fibres from a pineapple leaf are extracted, and then the leaves themselves are cut up, layered and then processed into a “leather” product. Bloom Foam is a high-performance foam made from algae biomass which, according to their website, “cleans and restores the environment when harvested.” Orange Fiber is a fabric made from citrus by-products, by a company with a circular economy model.
While this is a great start, a quick look through the Conscious Collection found that the first product displayed, which is a ribbed top, is made from 95% cotton and 5% elastane. Never mind that cotton is an intensely thirsty crop, the fact that it’s 5% plastic (i.e. fossil-based) is alarming. Not long ago, H&M also started a neat little Product Sustainability tab for all of its products. This means customers can see where each of their products are being made. In the case of the ribbed top, it was made in China and Turkey with no guarantee that they are being paid fairly. H&M also tells their customers that they can be a “FASHION RECYCLER!” by bringing the textile to the H&M store to be “reworn, reused or recycled”.
In the case of the ribbed top, because this product is a mixed blend, it will be hard to recycle. Also, consider that H&M is notorious for burning its unwanted or returned stock. That being said, at least there’s some level of transparency, which is difficult for a brand as large as H&M. So is H&M’s Conscious Collection greenwashing? To some extent, yes, but the effort is there. With it, they’re already one step ahead of many fast fashion retailers who don’t put in an effort to trace their supply chain.
CASE STUDY: boohoo’s #forthefuture collection
boohoo just dropped a recycled range this past June. It’s publicised as recycled polyester that is “created from plastic that has been directed away from landfills and repurposed to produce new yarn.” With this collection, the fast fashion retailer encourages its customers to #DOYOURTHING for the environment. Production happens in the UK, the tags are made from 100% recycled paper, and the collection uses environmentally-friendly dyes and ink.
On the other hand, the fine print reads that it’s only 95% recycled polyester, which makes it 5% new plastic. Elastin, to be specific. Not only that, but the pieces are also shockingly affordable, which raises an eyebrow because ethically-made garments often cost a little more. Also, because it’s so affordable, boohoo is encouraging consumerism, an unsustainable habit for our planet. In conclusion? We’ll have to wait and see. It doesn’t seem to be looking too good, but if boohoo keeps up the work and aims at more big-picture sustainability, then maybe. Right now: a mediocre effort at best.
1. Make use of online resources. Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index or the Good On You website and app are good places to start. They’ll save you some time and give you a quick rating on how sustainable a fashion brand is. (But keep digging – sustainability ratings are subjective. Make your own judgment!)
2. When in doubt, email. Or message them on their Instagram and Facebook page. Shoot them a quick message and ask them questions like what materials are used or how their garments made? Or simply #WhoMadeMyClothes.
3. Don’t just boycott fashion brands that are greenwashing. Call them out on your social media platforms and raise awareness in your community. Then write in and tell them you want them to be more transparent and sustainable.
At the end of the day, this is not a checklist. It’s difficult for brands to check off every single box, so sometimes greenwashing is not exactly intentional. Orsola De Castro, founder and creative director or Fashion Revolution, explains that “a greenwash could also be a precursor to real change, a step in the right direction.” But it also doesn’t excuse brands who do a token Earth Day collection and call themselves sustainable before proceeding to plaster it everywhere like it’s something to be proud of.
Image credit: Úrsula Madariaga from Pexels