“Fashion this fast can never and will never be sustainable.”
Venetia La Manna, sustainability activist
With the recent waves of activism and reforms in various industries to make their products and services more environment friendly, we have seen many big companies and brands come forward with different initiatives. For example, H&M’s sustainable range ‘Conscious’; one of its products is a long-sleeved shirt made from 100% organic cotton. Sounds pretty eco-friendly, right? But just one of these organic cotton shirts takes approximately 20k litres of water to be produced. Not that sustainable anymore.
The example given above is a powerful marketing tool known as ‘greenwashing’. In simple terms, greenwashing is when a company presents itself as environment-friendly to promote its products which inherently are manufactured with practices that aren’t sustainable. With the increasing awareness among consumers, most look for options that are both cost-efficient and environment-conscious. Through different ways of marketing and production, companies often deceive their consumers to believe that their products are sustainable.
In reality, fast fashion can never be completely sustainable as the processes or raw materials that facilitate the fast mass-production industry are not eco-friendly. For example, fabrics commonly used as a “sustainable” alternative are more harmful to nature. Like organic cotton, which is marketed as an eco-friendly fabric, still consumes 182 litres per kg lint for cultivation and requires intensive labour and pesticide usage due to low yield. Moreover, the chemicals and dyes used to refine the product are not natural and harm water bodies in their ways.
“Fast fashion and Greenwashing are a match made in heaven.”
Cate Billinton, Fashion Management student at George Brown College
Big brands such as Zara and H&M represent themselves as sustainable to improve their brand image. Zara claims that it is becoming more sustainable by reducing their plastic usage and claims that it is doing the “exact opposite of fast fashion”, while it is the one that introduced the concept of fast fashion in the world. On the other hand, H&M encourages its customers to return and recycle their old clothes, rewarding them with a 15% discount on the purchase.
According to Elizabeth Cline, author, journalist, and expert on fast fashion says that fast fashion brands becoming sustainable is close to impossible; “In reality, only 1% of clothing can be genuinely recycled. This is because most of the clothing fabric is a blend of many different types of fibres which are hard to separate once blended. Cotton and wool are hard to recycle because their quality goes down greatly on recycling.” most of the time, old clothes that are returned or donated are either sent for incineration, to landfills, or to the developing countries to take care of. The clothes can practically not be recycled as claimed. Additionally, the discount strategy motivates customers to get rid of their old products and shop more, thus promoting the fast-fashion consumption in the end.
“It is easy to say something is sustainable and not have to prove it. It’s not always backed by real, credible data. It makes it difficult for the consumers to make smart choices.”
Amina Razvi (Executive Director, Sustainable Apparel Coalition)
Now if you’re wondering how is greenwashing legal? How can a company falsely mislead the consumers and not be punished for it? Who will take the responsibility? The answer is not as simple. Greenwashing is illegal and unethical and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also has guidelines called Green Guides to address the misleading claims. But unlike other industries that have strong consumer protection laws, FTC does not have strong guidelines against fashion brands that use misleading marketing strategies. There is no legal definition for commonly used marketing phrases like sustainable, green, eco-friendly, etc. this lack of specification lets companies avoid legal persecution with blatant misinterpretation. Consumers are hence left to determine the authenticity of these claims.
On the other hand, some people like Orsola De Castro, the founder of the Fashion Revolution Foundation, argues that greenwashing brings attention to sustainability and incorporates awareness about the production processes. Thus greenwashing acts as a catalyst to the green movement in fashion and also motivates consumers to educate themselves on the issues. However, in the end, we can’t deny the disadvantages that may also result in consumers losing faith and trust in sustainable brands regardless of their effective steps towards becoming more environmentally conscious.
So how to know if a particular brand is truly sustainable and does not greenwash their clothing ranges? There is no one perfect way other than educating yourself, so you can judge better and make smarter choices for the environment. You can read the articles listed below for some of the tips and tricks to sustainable shopping, and look out for our articles in the future about further explanations of production and marketing in slow fashion.
Cover photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash