Greenwashing: Fast Fashion’s New Tactical Weapon
By Lucie Stepankova
As we’re all becoming more aware of how important it is to make greener choices on a daily basis, the sustainability of the brands we buy from has never mattered to us as much as it does now. Most fashion brands are well-aware of this and, in response, launch green initiatives and centre their branding around sustainability – but are they truly making changes for the better, or just feeding us green lies hoping we’ll bite?
The marketing tactic of being dishonest about a company’s environmental performance in hopes to sway shopper’s opinions and purchase intentions is called greenwashing.
Why do brands do this?
In recent years, fast fashion has become the main business concept of the industry. It involves quick rotation of stock (sometimes as quickly as introducing a new collection every single week), extreme cost-cutting and outsourcing of cheap labour.
Fast fashion is unsustainable by design – it involves the dumping of toxic pesticides and dyes into rivers, soil degradation, pollution of the ocean with microscopic plastic particles… But the main reason why fast fashion can arguably never be made sustainable lies in its very purpose: to make more money by creating cheap clothing customers will replace quickly, without thinking, on impulse, to discard what they already have.
The seven sins of greenwashing
What forms can greenwashing take? Terrachoice has created a framework called the seven sins of greenwashing to facilitate the understanding – and nearly all greenwashing cases fall into one of their categories:
- No proof is fairly common in fast fashion – it involves making claims about the brand’s environmental commitment and performance without backing them up. That would be like you writing an academic essay but not adding references to any of your arguments. One of the prime examples of this is H&M, which is regarded as one big greenwashing scandal by many sustainable fashionistas. They have a whole ‘sustainability’ section on their website without any reference to data which would back up their empty promises.
- Vagueness entails throwing around sustainably-sounding terms without set definitions. All kinds of brands are labelling their products as ‘natural’ – a very misleading term. For example, leather is natural (it comes from animals, which are part of nature) but its production process still makes it one of the most unsustainable materials due to high greenhouse gas emissions.
- Lesser of two evils is a sin that penetrates the whole idea of fast fashion’s sustainability promises. By creating sustainable collections or ranges, fast fashion companies are creating an option that is less environmentally harmful than the rest of their stock – but as I said before, it is still fast fashion, which is unsustainable by design.
- Hidden trade-off emphasises one aspect which makes a product more sustainable, while ignoring other ways which make it not-so-sustainable. Fast fashion companies are very well-known for doing this. For example, they will emphasise that a product is made from a portion of recycled materials or contains organic cotton but will leave out the rest of its
overall footprint (release of plastic fibres into the water cycle, use of toxic dyes, transport across half the world… the list could go on) which is detrimental to the environment. ● Three other greenwashing sins exist: irrelevance (stating something that’s true but doesn’t make a difference – such as labelling products as CFC-free when CFCs are banned anyways) worshipping false labels (creating misleading illusions of third party endorsements) and fibbing (simply lying). Although these are not as common in the fashion industry, it’s still worthwhile to keep them in mind.
Spot greenwashing and avoid it
Whenever you see a (fast) fashion company make sustainability claims, the best way to check their credibility is to look for facts which support their statements and the whole truth – not just the side of the story the brand wants you to see.
While looking through fashion labels’ websites, you can see for yourself how much of what they’re trying to sell to you is actually based on fact. While this is great to do if you can maintain a critical edge, remember that the marketing departments of these brands are experts in deception and usually try to apply emotional appeals when they don’t have the facts to back up their actions. This can make you vulnerable to their greenwashing, especially if the brand in question is one you’ve shopped at frequently before.
Here’s where third-party websites such as Fashion Revolution or Ethical Consumer come into play. They do the analysis for you and present it all in one place, including the pros and cons of companies. Unsustainable practices can rarely escape their scrutiny.
Keeping the seven sins of greenwashing and these fact-checking tips in mind can help you easily identify when a fashion company is trying to lure you in with greenwashing. Just like me, you’ll soon be calling out every other store on the high street for being a bunch of dirty liars! Congratulations and welcome to the club.