Are you being greenwashed by your favorite fashion brand?

This article is an analysis of the current state of fashion and the importance of greenwashing in the industry, done by Pippa Simmonds for Fix that Shirt. Pippa is also a writer at Voir Fashion, which is a free digital fashion magazine that has 4 premium quarterly issues.

Through this article, we aim to spread awareness about the issue of greenwashing. With this PR and marketing tactic being deceptively used by many companies and brands, this article explains how we can all avoid being greenwashed.

So if you are a fashion student, educator, researcher, enthusiast, or a stakeholder in the fashion industry in any way, we invite you to give it a read.

greenwashing

The Subtleties of Greenwashing, Simplified

 As an industry, fashion is one of the worst polluters: the water use, the toxic dyes and treatments, the use of plastic fabrics and packaging. But at a glance, with the rise of ‘conscious’, ‘responsible’, and the big one: ‘sustainable’ lines by fast fashion retailers; things seem to be improving, right?

If you’re not familiar with the term ‘greenwashing’, it essentially refers to brands that, directly or indirectly, lie about how ethical their company practice is (not to be confused with putting on a separate wash just for your green-hued clothes. Don’t do that. It’s unnecessary). 

But by the book, Kent. E Portney’s definition of sustainability is the most widely recognised one, and describes sustainability as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (Portney, 2015). But it’s also become something of a trend in recent years, and fashion companies love trends, for obvious reasons. This is why, although your favourite fast fashion retailer may be selling an organic cotton t-shirt in their shiny new sustainable collection, you’re not necessarily making the best decision by buying it. Obviously, organic cotton is better than non-organic cotton, but it still takes over 2,000 litres of water to produce (WWF, 2013). Also, it’s one t-shirt.  One t-shirt out of thousands of other garments released by fast fashion brands per year. That is not sustainable.

reduce image

How do brands use language as a greenwashing tactic?

In what is arguably best described as ‘an age of being able to write anything you like on the internet without repercussions’, you can see how it’s pretty easy for some brands to slip through the net when it comes to having their claims fact-checked. It’s tricky to legislate vague terminology like ‘eco-friendly’, and consequently it’s easy for consumers to accept these terms as confirmation that their shopping habits are to be applauded.

One of the most common terms used when brands are engaging in greenwashing behaviour is ‘reduce’. It’s simple but effective, and here’s why: in the context of sustainability, it implied efforts are being made without necessarily telling us what they are.

For example, if a brand publishes a statement about their intent to ‘reduce environmental impact by 2020’, there’s literally no way to prove otherwise. Even if this just means they are using a tiny percentage of recycled or organic fabric, whilst continuing to release thousands of new lines each month.

So what is the point in using ambiguous terminology? According to research by Evans and Peirson-Smith (2018), ‘key green language’ (think buzzwords like conscious, responsible, and eco-friendly) tend to portray an unclear message to the consumer; ultimately leading to frustration. This language has the potential to suck in customers who haven’t done their research, with the buzzwords becoming redundant as more and more insincere brands start throwing them around. This leaves the consumer with the same lack of knowledge on sustainability as they had in the first place, with some added confusion.

How do brands use colours as a greenwashing tactic?

There’s a reason why sustainable fashion has typically been associated with boring, beige linen, and dull colourways. Research has shown that earth tones imply a link with nature, and that the colour green has been associated with eco-friendly products, and connotes positive meanings like “pleasantness, calmness and happiness” (Sundar & Kellaris, 2017).

So, simple psychology means something as subtle as logo colour can influence our perception of a brand. That’s literal greenwashing. 

To use a tired example: a certain European fast fashion brands have always used a specific shade of green for the hangtags and branding of their infamous ‘conscious’ collection, with campaigns and ads for the line typically featuring muted tones and ‘natural’ settings.

However, for a garment to actually qualify for the line, it only has to contain ‘50% sustainable materials’. In 2019, this particular brand also claimed that due to ‘quality restraints’, items in the collection could not contain more than 20% recycled cotton. How very conscious of them!

Who made my clothes

How can I tell if a brand is using greenwashing tactics?

If a brand is greenwashing, their claims will be vague. Unless they’ve published totally transparent details of what goes on down their production line, there are questions to be asked.

If you’re really in doubt, ask them yourself:

  • Where, and by who, were these clothes made?
  • How much are these people paid?
  • Can the company provide facts, figures, or factory names?
  • How is possible that the company are operating ethically if only one collection on their whole website/store is dedicated to being ‘conscious’ or ‘sustainable’?
  • If the company are claiming efforts to ‘reduce environmental impact’ or ‘reduce carbon emissions’, how exactly are they doing this?
  • You can also take a direct action and promote transparency of the process by buying local & artisanal. Check out this article explaining ‘why should young designers be interested in learning from the work of the artisans?’
It’s time that we start asking the right questions. Who made my clothes image from Fashion Revolution) 

 Like this article? Join us in creating a more ethical fashion ecosystem by spreading the word!  

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Bibliography

Portney, K.E. (2015). Sustainability, (1st ed.) London. England.

WWF. (2013). The Impact of a Cotton T-Shirt. [online] WWF. Available at: worldwildlife.org

Sundar, A. & Kellaris, J.J. (2017). How Logo Colors Influence Shoppers’ Judgements of Retailer Ethicality: The Mediating Role of Perceived Eco-Friendliness: JBE JBE. Journal of Business Ethics, 146(3), pp.685-701. 

Wenzhong, Z. & Jingyi, L. (2013). A Pragmatic Study on the Functions of Vague Language in Commercial Advertising. English Language Teaching. 6, pp.103-112.

The True Cost. (2015). Directed by Ross, M. [Amazon Prime Video] Available at: amazon.co.uk

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