Greenwashing in fashion – what is it, and how do we spot it?

The global climate crisis is one of the biggest large-scale issues that we are facing as a species. Our natural rainforests are suffering, sea levels are rising, and many argue that the greatest mass extinction has begun. Thankfully, we have seen a massive increase in climate awareness, and sustainable activism is growing in popularity – especially among the younger generation. Big brands are always looking to be caught up the latest trends. The consumerist desire is more and more leaning towards green life, and many brands and corporations have realized that they need to adapt to this narrative in order to continue to reach the audiences that they previously have counted on. Nonetheless, many of these marketing shifts are merely for that – marketing. Titles like “all natural”, “eco-friendly” or “vegan” and using primarily green or earth tones as campaign colours are only advertising strategies to entice sustainably conscious customers to buy their products. The shift in marketing is not reflective of the production process, the labour conditions and the general business models that the brands use. Costumers are however lured into thinking that the brand promotes sustainability, when in reality are still creating a lot of damage. This is what we call greenwashing.

Performative activism

Performative wokeness, or as some call it – Woke-washing, is an example of how the concept of green-washing exists not only when it comes to sustainability. Woke-washing is, according to Euronews’ Kavita Ashton, when brands co-opt the “language of social justice movements and activism to appeal to socially conscious shoppers”. The company Good On You demonstrates the double standard of woke-washing in the fast-fashion industry through the example of brands selling cheap T-shirts with feminist slogans that were made by underpaid women in dangerous work environments. This kind of performative activism illustrates the same issue as greenwashing. I saw a T-shirt in New Look the other day with an illustration of the earth and a quote about sustainability. The T-shirt is clearly targeted to young boys and girls who are interested in sustainability and care about the future of the planet, and the brand chose to make profit off of that demographic. New Look is a fast fashion brand that shows very little transparency when it comes to its environmental impact. If I bought the T-shirt, I would be supporting a brand that uses ecologically hazardous chemicals, exploits workers, takes little action to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and follows a fundamentally unsustainable business model. Not all shoppers know this about the brand though, and many would not think twice about the industry that this T-shirt represents because they agree with the statement printed on it.

The lie of eco-concious micro collections

It is becoming more and more popular for fast fashion brands to launch sustainability collections as a way to appear eco-conscious without having to abandon their old harmful corporate models. H&M Concious, New Look Kind, Topshop Considered and Zara’s Join Life campaign are only a few of these collections made by fast fashion brands in an effort to trick constumers into thinking that they are making big industry changes to protect the planet.

Typically, these collections include clothes made from sustainable fabric such as linen or organic cotton. The clothes are however usually sold at the same low prices as the rest of the company products, and we know from the world of fast-fashion that when something is sold for a surprisingly low price – there is always someone else paying the price. The terminology, images, fonts and colour palettes used in these campaigns are cunningly chosen to manipulate people into thinking that they promote sustainability, yet when you look at the big picture these collections do not promote any real change. The product quality is still bad, because the clothes are designed and overproduced to last no longer than a season, before they end up in landfills along with the rest of the world’s fast-fashion garments. These micro-collections clearly offer no solution to the fast-fashion problem and are only made to make people buy more products. This discrepancy between what the brand is saying, and what they are doing is the first sign we are being manipulated.

How to avoid greenwashing brands

If there is one good thing to take from the greenwashing process, it would be how it illustrates the power we hold as consumers. Brands are nothing without costumers, and they now know that they have to change their ethics in order to cater for a larger demographic. If we manage to spot greenwashing when it happens, and only credit the brands that are actually making substantial sustainable changes to their business models, it would show the fast-fashion industry that consumers are not as easily manipulated as they might think. To avoid falling into the trap of green-washing or woke-washing, we must become familiar with the techniques used by these brands and examine them with a critical eye. The easiest rules to remember when it comes to fashion it is that the greenest and most eco-friendly habit to have is buying less. So, if a brand sells garments for a very low price, it likely means that their strategy is to sell lots and lots of items, which is inherently unsustainable. Try and look for brands that value quality and ethics on the same level as profit and stay away from fast fashion brands.

By Signe Loven

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