Sustainable, conscious, green, circular, responsible, these are all buzzwords that we’ve been hearing a lot recently in the context of big fashion houses - whether it be luxury or high street brands. But what's the reality behind closed doors? Do brands want to make a difference when it comes to their environmental impact and working conditions, or have we just fallen victim to greenwashing?
The term greenwashing was coined by the environmentalist Jay Westervelt in the mid-1980s. It is the process of providing misleading information in order to present a company's products as more environmentally friendly than they really are.
This problem has become more prominent since fast-fashion brands have started to launch ‘green’, ‘conscious’ or ‘responsible’ collections. These brands have become very sophisticated in their greenwashing efforts - and sometimes aren't even aware that they're doing so - making it difficult for us as conscious consumers to judge whether these companies are really walking the walk. When trying to find out what sustainability means we can be quickly overwhelmed by definitions, advice, and tips that the internet throws at us. To combat this, we need objective criteria for sustainable fashion that allows us to define exactly what is and isn't sustainable.
But how can we tell the difference between brands that simply market themselves as sustainable and the ones that make sustainable products? It’s all well and good if the fabrics are sustainably sourced but if the store you’re buying your product at is using an endless amount of plastic bags to pack your garment in it doesn’t help the environment either. We’ve all been there thinking we did something good for the environment, when in fact we have just been greenwashed.
How can we as conscious consumers spot if a brand is greenwashing and therefore avoid it?
Here are some tips:
- Is the sustainability clause covering several aspects of the supply chain or only a single one?
It might be that a brand is using partly recycled material in some of their products. However, looking at their full impact of production it might only be a small percentage of products that are circular but contribute very little to their overall impact.
- Is there a real benefit for the environment, animal or human welfare?
Another example that happens frequently is that a brand claims to not use any fur or leather in their products. While this is a good step forward for animal welfare, it contributes little to the environment if instead of that fake fur is used which is simply made of plastic.
- How transparent is the brand?
Another good way to find out if a brand is serious about its sustainability efforts is to check their website and publications thoroughly for details about the origin of the products, production process, and working conditions. If a company is hesitant to share this info or just very vague about these details then be wary. A helpful guide is Fashion Revolution’s ‘Fashion Transparency index’.
- Where is the product made?
A new trend amongst some high street retailers is to emphasise where the product is ‘designed’. However, this information simply tells you the location of where the design team is based, not where the garment was made. Looking at the sewn-in label will give you more information about the actual product origin. The brand might state ‘designed’ in Paris, but you look at the origin of the product, it might be made in Bangladesh or China in factories that do not even pay a living wage or adhere to health and safety standards.
- Are there any certificates from official authorities associated with the product?
Another helpful indicator is certifications or standards the products of the brand adhere to. The GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) indicates that a product is organic and well-produced through every stage of the production. It covers all aspects of the production of a garment from using biodegradable and toxin-free dyes, fair labor practices and an end-product free of chemical residues.
The more aware we are of the tricks big fashion houses are using to look more sustainable the more we can challenge it.
It’s becoming clear that we need an authority that defines a sustainability standard. The challenge for consumers and businesses is that there is no single guideline or law in place which defines true sustainability and that therefore can help to avoid greenwashing. Sustainability stretches across multiple aspects of the fashion supply chain from working conditions, fabrics up to packaging and distribution as well as animal and human welfare.
The aim for businesses should be to consider sustainability as a holistic model across all functions of the business which means a full transformation, not only one aspect.
The GFA (Global Fashion Agenda) is a non-profit organisation founded in 2016. It is a leadership forum for industry collaboration on fashion sustainability.The GFA has outlined eight sustainability priorities for the fashion industry. They name four core priorities for immediate implementation and four transformational priorities for fundamental change in the longer term. The GFA stresses that it is not enough to just change one aspect - it needs to be a holistic approach. The four core priorities comprise of efficient use of water, energy, and chemicals, combating climate change, supply chain traceability, and secure and respectful work environments. The four transformational priorities are aiming for fundamental change such as a circular economy or the promotion of better wage systems.
One small change as a consumer, one big change for the planet.
Only if businesses are adhering to those standards can we as consumers make informed choices about sustainable fashion. Challenge the fashion brands you love to be more transparent and make the switch to a more sustainable one if in doubt.
By Corinna Elsaesser