Greenwashing - what is it? How big is the problem? And how to avoid falling victim to it?
Greenwashing or giving something a green sheen... whatever you want to call it, is a big problem. And seemingly in no sector more so than in textiles and fashion.
Last month the UK’s competition watchdog said for the first time it would investigate potentially misleading environmental claims made by the fashion retail sector.
It comes after the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published a report in 2021, which found 40% of green claims made by online businesses in a variety of sectors across the globe could be described as ‘misleading’.
The fashion sector is the first to be targeted by the CMA because it was found to be the biggest cause for concern after this initial research.
The CMA said it will look into several common green claims across the British fashion sector including around recycled materials and ranges of clothing that are branded as sustainable.
What is Greenwashing?
Simply put, greenwashing is the practice of a business overstating its eco-credentials.
This could be by creating a false impression; giving misleading or incomplete information; or through deliberate deception.
It frequently manifests itself in a brand promoting itself or its products as environmentally-friendly without the ability to substantiate these claims.
Common techniques may include vague claims and unclear language - including terms such as ‘eco’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘natural’ without any specific claim or evidence.
Other tactics include using own-brand eco logos and labels not associated with an accredited organisation.
Businesses could also hide or omit certain information, such as a product’s overall impact, to appear more eco-friendly.
One of the biggest greenwashing examples is Volkswagen’s dieselgate from 2015, which involved deliberate deception. The scandal, which saw the auto manufacturer install defeat devices into car engine software to rig emissions data so they would appear lower, has cost the brand £25bn to date in legal costs, compensation and vehicle buybacks.
Why is Greenwashing bad?
Many brands are keen to capitalise on the demand for eco-friendly products - after all, it has become a key trend, particularly with millennial and younger audiences.
But not all brands are as keen - or are able - to make the major adjustments required to their manufacturing processes or overall business model.
So, instead companies may highly publicise any piecemeal changes and overstate their eco claims, which in turn misleads a shopper’s perception of the brand’s conduct as a whole.
The main danger with this is that such claims can lead shoppers to unwittingly act unsustainably, rather than supporting a brand whose products actually are made in a more ethical way.
How big is the problem of Greenwashing in Fashion?
A report by the Changing Markets Foundation in June suggests that 96% of H&M’s sustainability claims, 89% of ASOS’s and 88% of those made by M&S flouted the CMA guidelines in some way.
Research conducted as part of the report found H&M’s Conscious Collection to be more damaging than its main clothing line - with 72% of clothes containing synthetic materials derived from fossil fuels, compared to 65%.
Some of the synthetic content in this collection came from recycled materials, but - recycled or not - polyester sheds microfibres, which is damaging to the environment.
Separately, Asos has highly publicised its plans to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2030, but conversely reported a 16% increase since 2019 in products made from synthetic fibres derived from fossil fuels.
And it’s easy to point the finger at fast fashion or high street brands but strides need to be taken in the luxury sector too, which is responsible for garments that are equally damaging.
The Changing Markets report looked at items from Gucci and Louis Vuitton and found the latter sold items of “highly questionable material composition”. For example, a clear plastic designer ‘lifejacket’ style vest made from 100% ‘natural’ PVC.
Aside from the imaginary concept of PVC being ‘natural’, the dangers of PVC should not be underestimated and it is regarded as one of the most environmentally damaging of all plastics.
Some brands are deliberately deceiving their customers over materials and processes about which the average person cannot be expected to possess an in-depth knowledge.
When a consumer sees items labelled as ‘natural’, ‘sustainable’, or ‘eco’, there is an expectation there should be an improvement compared to a like-for-like product.
With many of the large chains however, analysis suggests for the majority of cases this is simply not true.
Add to that the fact that production of clothing is actually increasing rather than decreasing.
Zara and H&M were back up to their pre-pandemic sales levels by the autumn of last year, and are forecasted to keep increasing.
Inditex, the world’s largest fashion retailer, which owns Zara among other brands, posted all-time record levels of profit for two consecutive quarters in 2021.
‘Conscious’ or ‘sustainable’ collections are for nothing when the main cut and thrust of the business is unchanging and the number of garments being made increases without fail every year.
How to avoid greenwashing
1. Be Sceptical
Beware key terms like ‘natural’, ‘zero waste’, ‘eco’, ‘green’, ‘pure’, ‘sustainable’, ‘planet-friendly’ - especially when there is no specific claim and there is no more information provided.
These terms are completely ambiguous and - unlike the term ‘organic’ in relation to food - have no legal definition.
Always look for measurable figures - don’t accept vague marketing speech without numbers to back them up.
2. Beware changes to branding
Rebranding can be a greenwashing tactic. Some companies repackage existing (or new) products to look more environmentally friendly by changing logos, colours, and slogans with eco buzzwords and imagery.
Watch out for scenic pictures of nature, animals and plants; using children as part of campaigns; as well as incorporating natural colours or the look of recycled paper.
3. Look for certification
If an item of clothing claims it is ‘organic’, then you should look for a certification by a government-backed or highly regarded third party organisation. And beware not all certifications were born equal!
Get to know a number of key certifications that you trust and look out for them. Then you can benchmark other standards against those systems to see if they measure up to your own ethical standards.
The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is one of the most stringent certifications there is. Other certificates including OCS-100, Oeko-Tex Standard 100 and the Global Recycling Standard (GRS) are also credible and ambitious initiatives.
Better Cotton, formerly known as the Better Cotton Initiative, is the most widely-used organic certification among high street retailers including H&M and M&S, but has been found to be problematic.
It allows the use of toxic pesticides and fertilisers and does not ban GM-cotton seed.
It also relies on a ‘mass balance’ system that allows organic cotton fibre to be mixed with non-organic fibres, meaning that it is impossible to tell whether any of the cotton in a final product derives from organic cotton or not.
Additionally, in 2020 an expert task force set up by the initiative itself to review the Better Cotton Standard System found there was “organisational blindness” to issues of forced labour.
The authors of a 2018 report said unless Better Cotton brought in major reforms, it was “likely to lead to greenwashing on an industrial scale”.
In October, Better Cotton launched a revision of its principles and criteria to attempt to make production more sustainable.
4. Is the brand considering sustainability holistically in its business practices?
Is it just a tiny percentage of the larger brand offering? Are they looking at reducing production numbers? Do they provide aftercare or a takeback scheme?
What about the people in the supply chain?
Many brands talk about their materials, but don’t talk about the people who make their clothes, who are in the factories or the design studio.
5. Ask Questions - and think about the bigger picture
With sustainability, transparency is key. However, it is still all too lacking in many industries - and in particular in the fashion sector.
Last year Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index found that 99% of major fashion retailers don’t disclose whether their workers are paid a living wage.
With greater probing comes greater transparency - ask brands about the facts and evidence behind their claims.
Be aware of hidden trade-offs, eg vegan leather doesn’t mean it’s sustainable. It’s quite often simply PVC.
And use your common sense - if it’s a bottle of water being transported from the Alps, how sustainable can that really be, nevermind the super sustainable, recycled, eco-packaging it claims to come in.
6. Arm Yourself With Info
Read books and online resources dedicated to these subjects, eg, There is No Planet B by Mike Berners Lee and Your Planet Needs You by Bernadette Vallely & Amy Charuy-Hughes, which is a great dip-in, dip-out guide to environmental issues. Orsola de Castro’s Loved Clothes Last or How To Break Up With Fast Fashion by Lauren Bravo are great for more specific looks at the fashion industry.
7. Use Your Wallet
Along with your voice, it’s the most powerful thing you own. Companies will soon get the picture, if you’re not spending your money with them any more.
...How My Little Green Wardrobe avoids Greenwashing
Here at My Little Green Wardrobe, we only stock brands that are behaving in a more ethical way than is the current norm.
We thoroughly vet and research brands before considering them for our site.
Their garments must be certified by a trusted third party organisation - preferably GOTS - but we also accept other certifications eg. OCS 100, Oeko-Tex Standard 100, and GRS.
Each brand must complete a questionnaire detailing their practices and giving information to back up their claims.
We try to communicate this info with you, our customers, in an easy to understand, easily-digestible format.
We split the ways our brands are behaving more ethically into key values and each individual company and each unique product gets assigned its own set of values according to those it complies with.
Transparency is the enemy of greenwashing. And I hope by arming customers with information and allowing shoppers to filter clothing by our ethical values, you’ll be able to make decisions based on what’s important to you - and feel confident you haven’t fallen victim to greenwashing!