Greenwashing In The Fashion Industry

Home » Blog » Greenwashing In The Fashion Industry

In today’s world, companies are racing to make sustainability the prevailing norm. It is the new standard the consumers look at before selecting a brand. However, many brands adopt questionable marketing strategies to captivate their audience and entice their potential target market. 

What Is Greenwashing In Fashion? 

Greenwashing in fashion is a practice where brands portray themselves to be more sustainable than they are. By boasting about their minimal or sometimes non-existent sustainable practices, they tend to deceive their audience and build a positive brand image far from the actual reality of their impact on the environment.

The Fashion Industry is known to take a step back for sustainability over profit. As per the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, the fashion industry is responsible for ~10% of global carbon emissions, more than the shipping and aviation industries combined. Further, the industry uses 93 billion cubic meters of water annually and can cater to the needs of five million people! The fashion industry’s significant carbon footprint and water usage make embracing sustainable practices in the fashion world – the need of the hour. 

Statistics related to Fashion for the year 2019-2022 

Greenwashing in fashion occurs due to its low prices, rapid production cycles, and high turnover of clothing. The unfortunate part about this is that consumers tend to be apprehensive of brands claiming to be sustainable because of the existence of greenwashing in fashion. It makes the genuine efforts of other brands go unacknowledged. 

Greenwashing In Fashion – Tactics Involved 

Use Of Ambiguous and Unsubstantiated Claims 

To give an illusion of sustainability and environmental responsibility, greenwashing in fashion takes place through several strategies, such as throwing away terms like “eco-friendly” or “sustainable” without any factual proof. These labels are often meant only for a small collection of products, while the dominant part still undergoes conventional and unsustainable practices. 

Moreover, these terms are ambiguous and lack concrete evidence, making it hard for consumers to assess the impact of a product or brand. 

Highlighting Minor Initiatives 

When discussing greenwashing in fashion, a brand may claim eco-friendly product packaging without any certifications involved, but the packaging may still be adding to the environmental harm through resource consumption or inefficient waste management practices. This could also be happening whilst overlooking other aspects of its operations like supply chain practices.  

Selective Promotion 

One of the prime examples of greenwashing in fashion was Zara’s “Join Life” collection which spoke confidently about its environmentally conscious production methods. However, this collection constitutes only a fraction of Zara’s overall product range. The majority of Zara’s merchandise is still produced using traditional fast fashion processes, characterized by rapid production cycles, extensive resource consumption, and substantial waste generation. Critics argue that by highlighting the “Join Life” collection, Zara may be deflecting attention from the significant environmental impact of its main production lines, leading to accusations of greenwashing. 

Extinction Rebellion takes a stand with protests at Zara’s stores. 

Complexity Of Sustainability In Fashion 

As consumers, we must understand that using “sustainable” materials like organic cotton, recycled polyester, etc. does not guarantee that the product is itself sustainable. The sustainability of products depends on how they are sourced, manufactured, and disposed of, making it a complex process. Brands must build traceability in the supply chain and measure cradle-to-grave life cycle assessment of their products for reliable communication of their environmental impact.

Reliance On Carbon Offsets 

Some brands buy carbon offsets to achieve carbon neutrality and compensate for their greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is established that offsetting merely diverts the issue but does not address the key goal of reducing emissions.  

Lack Of Transparency In The Supply Chain 

“There has been a long, historical narrative around supply chain issues, dating as far back as the Industrial Revolution. We must take a high-level perspective of looking at how to make things better among broad categories of issues that do not change over time, such as environmental laws, labor rights, child protection rights, or innovative business practices,” said Pietra Rivoli, an expert in finance and international business and the author of Travels of a T-shirt in a Global Economy. 

Greenwashing in fashion runs uncontrolled largely due to the lack of transparency within the supply chain. Brands often gate-keep their operations, partially or completely such as where their materials are coming from and the kind of conditions under which the material has grown like excessive use of pesticides or water-intensive farming practices, thereby leading to environmental degradation.  

Examples Of Greenwashing In Fashion 

Major brands including Shein, H&M, etc. have faced scrutiny for their greenwashing practices. These companies have been exposed for misleading consumers by making false promises about their commitment to sustainability. 

H&M

H&M came up with their ‘Conscious Collection’ which was supposed to be sustainable and eco-friendly. H&M was using a scorecard system to inform customers about the green credibility of products. This later came crashing down when a report by Quartz revealed that these scorecards misrepresented the products as more eco-friendly than they were. Furthermore, it also highlighted instances where H&M’s scorecards portrayed exactly the opposite of what it was, particularly in terms of their labor practices and advancements in working conditions throughout the supply chain. This served as a prime example of greenwashing in fashion. 

Shein 

Another similar example is Shein, a popular brand from China, which has time and again boasted about its eco-friendly products and decent working conditions. They even went so far as to mention how they have been certified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) for compliance with the “strict labor standards set by international organisations such as SA8000”. It’s worth mentioning that the ISO does not issue any certificates whatsoever, rather it simply sets standards.

Shein’s ethical claims of sustainable practices

Apart from that, Shein has also been accused of a lack of transparency in its supply chains, forced labor practices, etc.  

Navigating The Greenwashing Maze

Owing to many such examples of greenwashing in fashion, many industry standards and regulations have been put into place to ensure accountability. These standards help in backing up all the green claims made by the companies. 

Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)

Organic textiles are synonymous with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), the certification upholding the highest standards in both social and environmental domains. It ensures that organic fibers are used without any harmful chemicals in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. 

Steps to achieve GOTS certification 

Oeko-Tex Standard

When it comes to preventing greenwashing in fashion, the Oeko-Tex Standard is a game-changer that goes above and beyond for the safety of textile products. Through tests at every stage of production, it ensures only the safest and most reliable products reach the market. 

Fair Trade Certification 

Speaking for better working conditions, Fair Trade Certification makes sure employers, especially in developing countries, provide fair wages and safe working conditions to workers. It also ensures compliance with environmental and economic standards while boosting sustainable livelihoods. Other certifications and standards also contribute a lot to ensuring that all standards are met like Bluesign System, and Cradle to Cradle Certified, among others. 

Principles of Fair Trade Certification 

We are now seeing a growing number of regulations across Europe, UK, and US that enforce transparent emission reporting, strict guidelines for labelling products as sustainable, and protocol for consumer communication.

Before purchasing any product or service of any brand, we must ask ourselves: Are there third-party certifications backing the sustainability claims? Is there transparent information about environmental practices? Am I influenced by green marketing or making an informed decision? 

Penalties For Greenwashing In Fashion 

In the ever-evolving landscape of sustainable fashion, transparency and honesty reign supreme. The crackdown by regulatory bodies on major brands serves as a wake-up call, holding them accountable for their deceptive actions, and fueling greenwashing in fashion.  

In the UK, some of the most prominent fashion brands like Boohoo, and George at ASDA have been fined by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) for making fake claims made by the brands for their products, exclusively those in conscious ranges. The authority demands that in the future, the products in these ranges must be clearly labeled and provide in-depth details as well. 

In Canada, the sportswear brand Lululemon went through a similar instance wherein Stand.earth, an advocacy organization, asked the Competition Bureau Canada to investigate the brand’s operations. The brand launched a campaign ‘Be Planet’ in 2020 claiming sustainability in its practices. Later, Lululemon was accused of emitting twice as much greenhouse gas since the campaign launch and of using no- recyclable materials. 

Similarly, top-tier brands like Decathlon and H&M were fined $530,000 and $430,500 respectively in 2022 for making green claims with no concrete evidence on their products.  

Impact Of Greenwashing In Fashion Business 

In the larger picture, Greenwashing in fashion does a lot of harm to various aspects of a brand, primarily its consumers and reputation. 

Consumer Cynicism 

Greenwashing in fashion can fuel increased cynicism and distrust among consumers, especially those who value environmental issues. It may cause consumers to feel deceived and question the authenticity of corporate commitments to environmental responsibility. 

Loss Of Brand Loyalty 

The brand will also lose its customer loyalty by greenwashing its operations, as consumers may switch to other brands that offer genuine efforts for sustainability. 

Industry Perception 

Not only that, it affects the way they perceive sustainability in the fashion industry, as they might generalize and overlook the genuine efforts of brands. For example, H&M reported a more than 10% reduction in its Scope 3 emissions in 2023. Despite a big milestone for the industry, the news was received with a lot of skepticism. 

How To Tackle Greenwashing In Fashion  

Companies must start emphasizing open communication with consumers, emphasizing transparency and accountability in their actions. They must demonstrate a genuine effort to achieve sustainability in their operations, right from sourcing to distribution. Further, Consumer advocacy groups and fashion industry coalitions like Cascale must step up to ensure the goodwill of consumers and hold companies accountable for their actions.

Third-Party Certifications 

To assure consumers regarding their sustainable initiatives, companies should approach a reputable third-party certification to build their credibility. Brands should always avoid vague or unsubstantiated claims and foster healthy communication with consumers. Robust metrics such as LCAs, PEFs, etc. should back all claims. This is because sustainability is a never-ending process and there will always be scope for improvement. 

Third-party certifications and standards 

Conclusion  

Catherine McKenna, the chair of the UN panel for net-zero emissions, said in the report launched at the COP27 climate summit, “Non-state actors – industry, financial institutions, cities, and regions – play a critical role in getting the world to net-zero no later than 2050”.

Greenwashing in fashion is a huge issue that continues to mislead consumers with false or exaggerated claims. It creates a place where the audience develops skepticism and to combat this, brands must focus on authenticity, honesty, and transparency of sustainability efforts.

For fashion brands, the call to action to eradicate this issue is to prioritize transparency in their actions. Consumer loyalty is the backbone of any brand and they must make a genuine effort to change their operations to maintain it.

As individuals, whether we are part of a fashion brand or simply consumers, we must understand that while profit can be compromised, the environment cannot. For this, we all share a common thread – sustainability. By embracing this responsibility, both as brands and consumers, we can make a significant impact and contribute to a better future.

Co-Founder & CTO

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *