They say that green is the new black.
Greenwashing is the fashion lie that has many individuals falling prey to the belief that a brand’s products are both environmentally and ethically sound, when they are in fact far from it.
Greenwashing in the fashion industry is a marketing gimmick designed to lure consumers into making purchases based on a veneer of sustainable practices. After all, a company wouldn’t lie to you would they?
In fact, greenwashing is nothing new. The term was originally coined over 40 years ago in the 1980’s by Environmentalist Jay Westerveld to describe companies that were making false claims and overstating the environmental or ethical benefits of their services or products. Greenwashing by today’s standards has only become more prevalent, especially as we move towards not only learning but understanding more about climate change and the impact our choices have on the world.
Many fashion brands have taken the public’s movement to invest in sustainable companies as an opportunity to cash in on people’s concern for the environment and the makers sewing their clothing. Where many individuals wish to make meaningful change in their purchasing choices, marketing heads of fashion companies use manipulative tactics to make sales without doing the hard work of running a truly sustainable company.
Marketing is absolutely great if done in the right way. Patagonia always hits the nail on the head with this one and is known for trailblazing the industry with their stance on anti-consumerism, environmental causes, and fair trade programs (see Patagonia is Marketing a Lifestyle).
It is imperative that we as individuals take the steps to educate ourselves on greenwashing and ask brands if their products or wares are in fact all that “green.” In 2018, Forbes published an article on “Why Sustainable Branding Matters,” and on Google alone there are pages upon pages of articles on “how to market your brand as sustainable or ethical.” In the wrong hands, this information can be used to jump on a “trend” as opposed to showing real concern for the environment and ethics.
It is often the loudest brands who claim that their products are sustainable, their cotton organic, and their fibres natural, without having any evidence to back up those assertions. Many of these vocal brands are mass producing clothing that makes you sit back and say – wait this doesn’t add up? After all, if any brand was to truly care about the environment and the women sewing their clothing, they would need to curb their production in favor of consumers buying less for higher prices.
So how can we ensure that we don’t fall prey to greenwashing?
Clare Press, Vogue’s first Sustainability Editor, once quoted Oscar Wilde in an article for Raconteur: “fashion is an art form so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” Press noted that it was more like every six weeks. It is worth noting that Wilde also stated “a little sincerity is a dangerous thing and a great deal of it can be absolutely fatal” — a statement that most certainly can be applied to greenwashing in the fashion industry. When a company is charging $10.00 for a tee-shirt, the likelihood of that garment being sustainable or ethical is practically non-existent, and the consequences on both the environment and garment makers are dire.
Here are three ways you can tell if a brand is greenwashing.
Brands Use Generic Language to Greenwash
When making purchases at a low price point, you always need to first interrogate the brand. Two questions that should run through your head before running your credit card are as follows:
- How much is the company I am buying from paying the woman who made this piece of clothing?
- What values am I contributing to by making this purchase?
At Remake, we ask our readers to sit with these questions every time they make a purchase.
Furthermore, you can look at the language a brand is using on their website to see if any red flags pop up while learning more about their practices:
- Is the brand using language that is hard to understand?
- Does it evade using detailed language around the topic of sustainability?
- Is the brand using language in a way that markets itself as being environmentally and socially concerned without offering detailed stats and information to back this up?
We dove even further into the topic of greenwashing featuring discussions with our organization’s Ambassadors to find out how they have been greenwashed by the fashion industry in the past, as well as the steps they have taken to avoid this in the future. We believe that sharing our experiences is an exchange in the communal currency of humanity, and when we share, we allow others to learn and grow with us.
I first fell prey to the use of language by a label in 2015. I was a fan of Free People, the label itself was started in the 1970s; one of my favorite eras in both fashion and music, and the bohemian aesthetics really appealed to me. The brand itself was noted online as being created to ‘nurture the young who looked for freedom in the clothes they wore.’ Looking back, I think this was my first instance of being greenwashed by the fashion industry. Upon researching the brand, I discovered that a large proportion of the label’s product line (which is owned by the URBN Group and includes Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie) is produced in factories where wage and safety standards are low or unverified. I also learned that as a label they use minimal eco-friendly materials that contribute to carbon emissions. For a label that comes across as ‘earth loving’ they really should and could be doing better”.
For me personally, Free People was a label that spoke of freedom yet had no concern for the freedom of those who created their clothes, nor did they have a care for the environment despite their aesthetic disposition. I wish I knew then what I know now about Free People and the fashion industry in general, however, this was a lesson for me in taking the time to research a brand and glean a comprehensive understanding of their ethics and commitment to those within their supply chains.
Pay Attention to a Brand’s Advertisement Strategies
Along with using evasive and non-specific language to greenwash, brands also rely on powerful advertising strategies to come across as sustainable even if they aren’t truly doing the work.
When investigating a brand, take a look at the images they use on their website and in advertisements and ask yourself the following questions:
- Is the brand using generic nature shots or stock images to depict their sustainability, or are they using imagery of their actual sourcing and manufacturing practices?
- Are they showing you images of the women making their clothing on their website?
Jenni from Reno, Nevada, found advertising issues with the brand Everlane. Their stance on radical transparency and organic cottons originally caught her attention but it appeared all in vain the more she uncovered the truth behind the brand.
“If you take a look at their website, there is no concrete evidence about their environmental impact. In their vendor’s code of conduct, their section on the environment is so generic and gives no understanding. Looking back I think I was so desperate to find a sustainable brand that I could afford that I wasn’t taking the time to do in-depth research. [In retrospect,] I felt embarrassed that I had fallen victim to something that I believed I was 100% aware of and that I had actually supported a brand such as this.”
When Jenni uncovered the truth about Everlane, she felt ashamed of the garments that she had purchased, yet decided to take a positive approach going forward.
“Regardless of whether these items I had purchased were ethical or not, someone did make them. By recycling the clothing before their time was up (letting them sit in my closet or taking to a thrift store), I took the approach that it would do a disservice to those who had made them. [Instead,] I chose to keep the products and wear them as a reminder to not make the same mistakes in the future. If someone should ask me where I got them from, then I will be sure to tell them my story.”
Jenni wants others to know that we should never accept what a company claims at face value and notes using a sustainable and ethical brands rating tool as a starting point for research on truly ethical brands. Remake’s Sustainable Brand Directory is a great resource for those wanting to find brands that have been vetted for their sustainability practices.
“Take the time and see if the brand you love has any proof to back up their claims. Do they promote a “sustainable” collection while not providing any concrete evidence as to how they’re making these clothes sustainably. People spend hours researching and comparing products for other things in their lives. Do the same for your clothing”.
Brands Should Be Practicing What They Preach
A brand may talk all the right talk, but if they’re not putting their values into action, that’s a problem. Ask yourself the following questions when wondering if a brand is truly taking action.
- Are you able to find a brand’s stance on diversity and work culture on their website??
- Are you able to verify that they are taking action rather than just talking?
- Are they all talk when it comes to world issues?
For Maria from Mexico City, this was the case she found when it came to the brand Reformation.
“This brand claims to be sustainable and ethical, and yet it recently came to light that the Black community working for the brand has been treated in a discriminatory manner.”
Reformation has since admitted this to be true with CEO, Yael Aflalo, stepping down in recent weeks due to racism within the supply chain. “I’ve failed” was recently posted by Aflalo to the brand’s Instagram page with the former CEO noting;
“Our mission is to bring sustainability to everyone, and part of that sustainability is treating people equally. I realize that I have failed all of you in that regard — especially the Black community. I’m sorry. Unfortunately, the way we have practiced diversity in the past has been through a ‘White gaze’ that falls too close to ignorance.”
Maria agrees that whilst the brand has apologized, they led consumers to believe that were inclusive. Whilst Maria has now stopped following them, it has made her realize that she needs to dig deeper when it comes to taking note of more than one aspect of a brand.
“I think sustainability is not only in the materials you use; it is also in how you treat those who work for your brand. It is easy for brands to say they use sustainable materials, but that isn’t enough for me; it is also about how you treat those within your supply chain. I now check if employees are rating the brands I hold as being ethical and sustainable as a safe and good place to work.”
Our Job as Conscious Consumers
Greenwashing leads consumers into purchasing products that harm the planet and the people that make them. As human beings it is in our nature to believe what we are told. If we buy into false claims, then we are in turn contributing to harming the environment and those that work within the supply chain of the companies making such claims. While brands have a duty of care to uphold, we have a duty of care to uphold as consumers. Asking the above questions is a must when investigating a new brand and determining if they are truly sustainable and producing ethically made apparel.
Amelia from Santa Clara, California, offers some sage advice when investigating a new brand that you’re unfamiliar with:
“I would say always start off with a brand’s website. The first thing I do when I discover a new brand is to head to their ‘About’ page, find out how the brand started, how they grew, their values, and how the materials are sourced. This should give you an overview of what you need to know. But if I find any gaps in the information I am looking for, I will email the company and ask.”
It would be great if all brands stood for the truth. Until then, it is our duty as a community and as individuals to find that out. When something doesn’t feel right about the latest piece you are coveting, send that company an email and demand the truth — because the clothing we wear goes beyond us. It goes back to those that made the garment and the earth where those materials are sourced from.
What You Can Do About Greenwashing & Brand Transparency
Unfortunately, greenwashing is alive and well in today’s fashion industry — but that doesn’t mean we have to fall victim to its dishonest tactics.
Transparency is key when it comes changing brands’ behavior. The PayUp Fashion movement, launched on September 21st, 2020, demands just that. If you haven’t already, please visit www.payupfashion.com to sign the petition as we fight for a better, more transparent future for fashion.