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What is greenwashing in the fashion industry?

Despite pledging to cut emissions, the fashion industry’s carbon footprint continues to expand, and many “sustainable” clothing brands pollute right along with the worst of them. Of the ten companies assessed in a recent Stand.earth report, nine are members of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and have made significant pledges to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Massive brands like Nike and H&M paint themselves as good actors in the fashion industry, and while some claims may be true, not all that glitters is green.

“Many are making it look as if the fashion industry is starting to take responsibility, by spending fantasy amounts on campaigns where they portray themselves as ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’, ‘green’, ‘climate neutral’ and ‘fair’,” said climate activist Greta Thunberg about fashion. “But let’s be clear: This is almost never anything but pure greenwashing. You cannot mass produce fashion or consume ‘sustainably’ as the world is shaped today. That is one of the many reasons why we will need a system change.”

But the industry is off to a slow start to systems change. Fashion is responsible for 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to the World Resources Institute, the garment industry’s environmental footprint is slated to increase 60 percent by 2030. Existing garment designs are pretty difficult to improve from a performance standpoint, so to drive consumption, fashion peddles new styles, lower prices, and quicker availability.

Good On You analyzed the environmental track records of over 4,000 clothing brands. The results, while not surprising, are disheartening:

  • Over half of large brands with emissions reductions targets do not disclose whether or not they’re on track to meet them.
  • None of the 40 most profitable clothing brands score “Great” on Good On You’s rating system.
  • 70 percent of the most profitable brands get Good On You’s lowest ratings for the environment.

 Greenwashing occurs when brands mislead customers with claims that a product is greener than it really is. Anyone who buys clothes has seen greenwashing, from Boohoo’s “sustainable collection” to Zara’s “energy efficient stores. For fashion’s outsized role in global greenhouse emissions, it is probably second to the oil industry in greenwashing.

There’s huge marketing potential for positioning oneself as a “green” or “sustainable” brand, but proving those claims is a daunting task. But consumers want brands to walk the talk and prove it with hard data. If they don’t, many consumers are ready to take their business elsewhere.

Still the complexity of the fashion supply chain is mind boggling. There are so many layers and steps to the process of garment manufacturing and data rarely exists for each, making verified claims difficult if not impossible for a broad swath of the sector.

But that doesn’t stop many of the big name brands from claiming they’re on the cusp of a sustainability revolution.

What are some examples of greenwashing in fashion?

Here are some common greenwashing tactics to look out for when shopping for new clothes:

  • “Recycled” or “recyclable” material. Recycled materials like polyester are touted as a “green” textile. However, polyester cannot be recycled again after use, and the only option for disposal is landfilling or burning, neither of which are green. Furthermore, “recyclable” material usually isn’t as recyclable as it’s claimed to be, as the recycling infrastructure just doesn’t exist for fiber-to-fiber recycling. At best, a worn garment might get a second life as insulation or cleaning rags, but any garment, regardless of being hailed “recycled” or “recyclable,” can be reused this way.
  • Vague or misleading claims and data. Wrong data is worse than no data. If a brand makes certain claims and supports it with shoddy or incomplete data, that’s a red flag. Brands are generally allowed to make their own targets and set arbitrary deadlines for achieving them, and in many cases, they are not legally obligated to share accurate data or even follow through on sustainability commitments (though that’s changing in Europe and Australia).
  • Reduction of emissions in operations. Many companies announce plans to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions “in operations,” which generally means their home offices or stores. However, the vast majority of a company’s emissions come from Scope 3, which are emissions associated with the supply chain, transportation of goods, use of goods by the consumer, and a product’s end-of-life. Having a carbon-neutral store or corporate-wide recycling initiative won’t offset the massive footprint of supplying materials, manufacturing, shipping, and using a garment throughout its lifetime.
  • “Eco-friendly” packaging. Brands that hyperfocus your attention on their recycled, minimized, or recyclable packaging are probably not doing anything else to reduce their footprint.
  • Focus on “green,” “sustainable,” or “conscious” lines in clothing. Brands often promote their “green” or “sustainable” lines, inaccurately presenting them as much more impactful than they are. In fact, these lines make up a tiny fraction of a brand’s total inventory.
  • Rebranding fast fashion as a way to eliminate excess inventory and waste. Fast fashion brands sell so quickly that many don’t even keep inventories in warehouses, instead shipping them directly from factory to consumer. Companies like Shein claim this “eliminates waste” associated with excess inventory. But even if every article of clothing finds a home in someone’s wardrobe, every single one of them will be thrown away within a year. There’s nothing sustainable about that.

What to look for in a good fashion brand.

While no fashion brand is perfect, good actors in the garment industry will be open and transparent about the process of how their clothes make the journey from ground to closet. Here are some things to look out for when looking for ethical fashion brands:

  • Good fashion brands focus on what really matters: The emissions, waste, and human labor required to produce a garment. They won’t cherry pick certain lines or clothing components, but look at the broader picture of a piece of clothing and how it impacts people and the planet.
  • “Sustainability” isn’t relegated to a single webpage. A good actor in the fashion sector will have sustainability embedded in every piece of content on their webpage. It won’t be super flashy, but to the point, clear, backed up with data, and relevant to the product you’re viewing.
  • Transparency. Good fashion brands open their hoods for the world to see. Information about factories, certifications, materials, packaging and more should be front-and-center on websites. Furthermore, they should be clear about areas where there’s room for improvement, and provide a concise plan for addressing future goals.
  • Third-party certified. Ethical clothing brands should be third-party certified to ensure they are employing the best standards for labor and environment. Look for certifications like the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), EcoCert, Bluesign, OEKO-TEX, and Fair Trade Certified.
  • Focus on quality. Good clothing brands should focus not only on how a product is made or what it’s made of, but the long term durability of a product. A biodegradable shirt or 100 percent recycled hat is just hubris if it only lasts a season.
  • Use their influence to scale systems change. Brands, especially large ones, should leverage their influence to support policy changes the fashion sector needs to be truly sustainable. They won’t herald internal sustainability initiatives and simultaneously oppose climate action.

We try to make navigating ethical clothes shopping easy at Nui. Most of our garments are at least GOTS certified, and we work closely with our factories to ensure ethical labor conditions. We know walking the talk always leaves room for improvement, and that’s why we’re always incorporating more natural materials and seeking new partnerships to ensure Nui isn’t just awesome on your skin, but awesome for the world.

 
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