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Living life with good intention, loving with soul, and consuming with a conscience

July 30, 2019

Greenwashing: Why Brands Need to Stop & How to Spot it

Over the past week, I've been reading articles about the fast fashion powerhouse Zara's bold claims to use "100% sustainable fabrics" by 2025 and although I already wanted to write a post on this topic, it's fair to say these endless articles was the final kick up the butt I needed to write this and hit publish.

Zara isn't the first brand to make big claims to be more sustainable - it was only last year (2018) that many brands made pledges and agreements to work towards UN sustainable goals - it all seemed very positive and as if major brands were making a conscious effort to make a change for the good. Some brands are making changes but in these times of change, greenwashing is breeding at an alarming rate and frankly? It needs to stop.

What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing isn't something new, but it seems to be developing amongst brands at an alarming rate. It applies across the board for us as consumers as companies of all sizes and types use it to trick consumers into thinking they are making healthier, more eco-friendly, more sustainable etc. choices when they're not. Think about the food/grocery industries advertising "all natural" or "free range" produce or telling you where it was grown/harvested (this video scrutinising marketing techniques is still a great example of this); the beauty industry with brands such as Garnier selling "vegan" products despite them testing said products on animals; the hotel industries leaving you those little cards asking you to "think about the environment" and to not ask for fresh bed linen/towels each day when in reality, they're doing absolutely nothing to be sustainable outside of that request; even oil giants BP using green as it's primary logo colour y'know, on a logo that's a flower; and my main focus and gripe today: the fashion industry.

Unfortunately, greenwashing isn't illegal but it is incredibly misleading and during a time when we are asking fashion houses and brands to be more accountable and transparent about their processes, ethics, and supplies, it is more prevalent than ever. A poll in 2015 revealed that 66% of global consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products (this increases to 72% in the millennial age range) so it's no surprise that brands are seeing dollar signs when they think of the equation:

"Vague Sustainable Promise & Misleading PR + Interested Millennial Consumers = More Money for Us"

The worst thing about greenwashing is that it's all essentially empty promises that acts a little like a wolf in sheep's clothing - it lures us all in as consumers with the best intentions and does absolutely nothing to actually change what needs to be changed. It's just manipulative marketing that makes a brand seem like they have environmentally friendly products and policies when they simply don't.

How the Fashion Industry is Using it
Brands are coming under fire more and more for using terms to describe their products or ethics that aren't 100% true or that don't represent what they're truly doing but greenwashing can even go beyond just the use of the language we all search for. Think beyond words such as sustainable, ethical, conscious etc. and instead think about how a brand chooses to present themselves. Think natural decor in their stores using plants and wood, think new release and collection campaigns being shot in the highlands of Scotland or surrounded by animals... All of it is creating an image that is not reflective of their practices. Brands blur these lines in the hopes that there'll be enough to visually and mentally over stimulate you so you won't ask questions and let's be honest - most of us don't think to when we've walked into a store to look at an item. It's only now that sustainability is under such scrutiny that us as consumers are picking out the red flags of misinformation and wanting straight answers.

The most popular high street and online brands have a range of tricks up their sleeves from recycling schemes to dedicated conscious/eco-friendly/natural lines to promotional projects focusing on those sustainable buzz words we look out for as conscious consumers. Of course I'm not going to sit here and slate a recycling scheme for example, because it's doing good still, right? Well, not exactly. I championed H&M's recycling scheme myself just last year as I felt it was a good way to get your foot in the door when starting to make more sustainable choices in fashion and whilst I still believe that to a degree, I've realised the error of my ways and how much I got suckered into some more pesky green marketing. In 2016, H&M held a Recycling Week and in that week, people donated their unloved items to the store for them to recycle but it meant the brand had enough garments that it would take 12 years to actually recycle it all - now, call me a pessimist, but I don't think all of it got recycled. It's particularly alarming that the amount of garments that were pledged during this time takes H&M just 48 hours to pump out and sell in comparison and with the promise of the vouchers to then go and purchase even more fast fashion, I've realised that "scheme" isn't as nice as it seems.

Another tactic H&M has been criticised for in the past has been their boasting over cotton being their most used fabric. Cotton is biodegradable and has a lighter environmental impact right? Well it does if it's organic, but as the brand's cotton use is only 13.7% organic, it kind of cancels out those eco-friendly boasts. Much like Forever 21 claiming that they were going to have the largest solar power panelled rooftop area in LA yet in the same breath stating they were opening another 18,000 sq ft mega store that would have "even greater discounts" on it's already ridiculously cheap clothing. That's just a couple of examples of ways in which green marketing is just thrown around to attract customers and in the hopes that no questions will be asked, but when brands such as Zara make bold claims to only use 100% sustainable fabrics by 2025, it's easy to see why cynical old gits like myself are eyerolling before they've even finished reading the statements.

Ways to Stay Wise to it
Of course it's a bit of a minefield trying to navigate through all these claims and promises and you're not alone! I'm still finding I get suckered into various schemes and new lines that brands release then I take time reading between the lines and realise it's all a load of bull. It can be hard to do and particularly if you're someone who relies on the high street for the convenience, the price, the accessibility etc., it can make it all the more difficult for you to make more conscious choices when greenwashing is occurring left right and centre.

Some things to look out for when you are shopping to keep your conscious feeling clearer and not feeling guilty after a purchase include:

- just because packaging might be recyclable doesn't mean that a brand is "reducing their waste". Surplus clothing at the production stage is still a major problem. Burberry got into trouble for burning 28 million quid's worth of their unsold products and unfortunately, they're not the only ones who do this.
- fast fashion brands who follow trends are encouraging throwaway culture, even if the trend items are sustainably made. If they're big on saying their pieces are "timeless" and not trend-led, check if the quality is actually there because if it's not and you're getting mass produced low quality clothing still, it's not going to last you and it's going to end up in landfill.
- brands doing pretty much anything but not addressing their supply chain makes their movements a little null and void. There's many out there that will give you immediate delivery (looking at you Zara with your same day delivery in London or Asos with your next day services). 70% of carbon emissions from the fashion industry are a result of production and thus, if a brand want to be truly eco-friendly, they should be looking at their production facilities, transport, and shipping methods. If they're offering a variety of special deliveries, that alone should ring some alarm bells on the carbon footprint front.
- if a brand is sharing targets that are pinned to a date, be sceptical. "we're aiming to reduce our emissions by X% in the next 5 years!" sounds like they're making steps in the right direction, but a lot can happen in 5 years that can mean that impressive sounding number won't actually seem that impressive when the date rolls around. Plus, how many people are going to pencil in the date in their calendars to check up on all these promises?
- greenwashing applies to ethical standards of workers too. Brands shouting about everyone being paid a minimum wage who works in their lines of production seem like they're doing a good thing, but a minimum wage isn't the same in every country. Some factory workers in Bangladesh for example might receive minimum wage but that minimum wage doesn't actually cover their living wage and thus, they're not fairly paid because they can't afford to live and support themselves or others who they may be responsible for. Look out for brands who are completely transparent about where their factories are located etc. and if they're trading under Fair Trade standards then you can rest assured they're doing good things.
- lastly, don't be fooled by those "sustainable/conscious/eco-friendly" lines big-name fast fashion brands are pumping out right now. Take Asos as an example - it's a good move for them to have an eco line or allow consumers to browse their site using tags such as "natural materials" "sustainable", but when those items only make up a tiny proportion of their overall products? It's greenwashing. If they overhauled their business model and at least 50% of it was completely sustainable in the true sense, then yes, they're making improvements but if there's just some organic cotton tees thrown in amongst the thousands of new items they release every month? They're just greenwashing us.

Obviously it's easy for me to sit here and be a misery guts, saying everything brands are trying to do to improve things is just a farce, but in reality, brands are consumer-led. They need us - their loyal customers - in order to make money and so if they can do things we approve of, they will continue to do those things and more. However, if we're being fed false information and being manipulated, all we're really doing is continuing to support unethical practices so they won't ever truly change. Movements such as Fashion Revolution are constantly pushing for consumers to be given all the information needed to make an informed decision. They call out brands to be more transparent and truthful and in their annual reports, they grade 150 major brands for anything from fair wages to valuing diversity and so on. In 2018, the average score was just 21% for a brand. It just goes to show that all the singing and dancing "we're making changes" statements and pages on fashion brand websites that include all those buzz words and promises we seek aren't actually backed up with any evidence or tangible actions.

If fast fashion is only ever going to adhere to what the market wants at any one particular time (for example, sustainable options because it's "hot topic" right now), they're never going to fully commit to that change because it won't serve a purpose in 5 years time if people have forgotten about it or moved on from it. Avoiding greenwashing can be impossible at times, but being more aware and wise to it can help demonstrate to retailers that actually? We want some clarity and honesty from them otherwise we can and will go elsewhere. How else are we going to motivate them to change?

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