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Home / Sustainable Tips and More / Greenwashing In The Fashion Industry Is At Its Worst: Here's How To Spot It
Greenwashing In The Fashion Industry Is At Its Worst: Here's How To Spot It

Greenwashing In The Fashion Industry Is At Its Worst: Here's How To Spot It

By: Lauren Plug

Today’s generations would sum up the 1980’s in a few words: MTV, spandex, hair volume, and shopping malls. While it’s easy to tease the trends and file them away as never to repeat, the 80’s launched the fast fashion industry, beginning what would eventually become the beast we know it as today. 

We can also thank the 1980’s for the term greenwashing, coined by environmentalist Jay Westervel as he noticed brands making false or misleading claims about their positive environmental impact. 

Greenwashing still exists today and I’d argue — very gently because I don’t like confrontation — that greenwashing is worse now than ever before. Especially in the fashion industry.

Photo by Charles Etoroma on Unsplash

Photo by Charles Etoroma on Unsplash

Greenwashing In The Fashion Industry

Let’s back up for a second. Greenwashing is a marketing tactic used by brands to either lie or embellish the positive effects their company has on the environment. 

These brands know we care about making more sustainable choices, so they use marketing to make it look as if they’re doing good things without actually doing the good things. 

They also know you don’t have time for it! Between families, kids, work, and trying to not have an existential crisis on a daily basis, most people can’t research the sustainability claims of every brand.

So the brands either make them up, lie about them, or embellish them and hope you and I won’t notice. 

Brands Hide Behind Sustainability Claims

When brands make sustainability claims, 3 things happen: 

  1. People believe them (obviously)
  2. The brand doesn’t follow through with any of those claims or try to do better. They’ve done a sufficient job of distracting us.
  3. It keeps the real issues from coming forward. 

    We get all warm and fuzzy when we make choices we think are sustainable and we forget about the environmental harm that is happening because of these brands. 

    We also forget about the real solution to the problem. I know you don’t want to hear it, me either, but it needs to be said. 

    Consumption. We all need to buy. less. stuff.

    Today, people buy 60% more stuff and keep it half as long compared to 15 years ago (2001, not the 90’s BTW)!

    And all that stuff — and greenwashing — leads to environmental harm.

    The Fashion Industry Takes The #2 Spot For Biggest Polluter In The World

    Photo by Francois Le Nguyen on Unsplash

    You’ve heard fast fashion is bad for the environment, but how bad? 

    The fashion industry emits 1.2 billion tons of CO2 per year — exceeding the emissions of both the shipping industry and international flights combined! 

    Additionally, mass production and profits often come before the basic human rights of the people making the clothes.

    Did you know? 

    • The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions.
    • One fifth of the 300 million tons of plastic produced each year goes towards synthetic material for the fashion industry.
    • 92 Million tons of used and unsold clothing is sent to a landfill each year.
    • 85% of ALL textiles end up in landfills!
    • 22,000 liters of toxic waste is dumped into rivers in Bangladesh every day just by tanneries.

      Feeling overwhelmed? Me too! But hang in there; what gets me through it is knowing there are good people and brands out there, like Basic Revolution!

      Plus, I’m going to show you examples of greenwashing and how you can learn to identify it. 

      How To Spot Greenwashing In The Fashion Industry 

      We were being manipulated by greenwashing so much that in 2007, TerraChoice (now UL) came out with “the 7 sins” to help us navigate our way through it. 

      The Sins of Greenwashing

      I’ll touch briefly on each one but you can read a more in-depth piece here.

      Hidden Trade-Offs

      When a brand hypes up one area of sustainable practices or uses a small set of criteria to define sustainability, ignoring other harmful parts.

          Proof (or lack thereof)

          Making claims without providing proof or 3rd party certifications confirming the claims.

            Vague Claims

            Claims that are so broad, unclear, or poorly defined that consumers can’t understand them. Think of terms like “all-natural” “green” and “clean”.

                Irrelevant Claims

                Making claims that while truthful, don’t relate to their claims of sustainability. Examples include brands claiming to be “energy efficient” and paying “minimum wage” both of which are often required by law. 

                    Lesser of Two Evils

                    Claiming to be “more sustainable” than their competitor, when the whole product/business model (of both brands) is unsustainable. 

                        Outright Lying

                        A brand making environmental claims that simply aren’t true. 

                            False Labels

                            Using colors, images, words, and more to make us think it’s a sustainable brand.

                              Whew! Let’s look at some examples of greenwashing to help you visualize how these “sins” are used IRL.

                              Examples Of Greenwashing In Fashion

                              My favorite example of Greenwashing actually comes from Andrea!

                              Andrea and I were recently talking about our own experiences being greenwashed. She told me about a time she saw a garment with a tag labeled as 100% recycled. That was not on brand for this store; so she looked it up later and found out the brand meant the paper tag was 100% recycled — not the actual garment! Classic!

                              A lot of greenwashing claims are hiding in plain sight.

                              If I asked you right now to name 3 brands you thought were fast fashion brands, would H&M and Shein be in your list? They should be! 

                              Greenwashing In Fast Fashion

                              H&M

                              H&M has a lot going on, but when investigated a few years ago they were found to have lied about 96% of their sustainability claims

                              Also, Norway sued H&M for false marketing claims surrounding their Conscious Collection in 2019.  

                                Shein

                                Shein hauls are blowing up on TikTok right now as people rip open boxes stuffed with inexpensive, individually bagged items. 

                                But Shein is particularly known for horrible labor practices and ripping off small designers.

                                They claim to be ISO certified (International Organization for Standardization) however the ISO only offers guidelines, not certifications. (The sin of Irrelevant Claims).

                                They overwork their employees in factories that are small, unsafe, and fire hazardous (read more here and here).

                                  It seems that fast fashion brands fit the description of greenwashing to a ‘T’, but luxury brands are just as guilty.

                                  Across all price points, brands burn and discard unsold (and returned) clothes. This is especially the case in the luxury industry to help keep exclusivity. 

                                  Coach 

                                  A TikTok went viral after slashed coach bags were found in the trash outside a store. Despite having a store policy of HULK SMASH destroying merchandise, Coach’s website says they’re committed to a circular economy and encourages people to mend and repair old bags instead of tossing them.

                                    A bit ironic, don’t you think?

                                    The Problem With Greenwashing in Fashion Industry 

                                    We’re hopefully on the same page that greenwashing sucks and it’s uncool. But it has many more repercussions than you might initially think.

                                    Greenwashing is everywhere

                                    A study on 12 brands done by the Changing Markets Foundation found that 39% of these 12 brands had sustainability claims and 59% of those claims were false

                                    It’s normalized

                                    Greenwashing is so… normal. We almost expect it at this point, right? Somehow it’s become normalized for brands to spend just as much money saying they’re sustainable as they would implementing more sustainable solutions.

                                    It’s Capitalism

                                    It’s promoted as a necessary part of capitalism. We’re led to believe society would crash if we stopped buying things. H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson was quoted in Lifegate saying ‘encouraging people to buy less would have “terrible social consequences”’. 

                                    It’s Misleading

                                    Brands know what they’re doing. Greenwashing is designed to make just enough sense that you won’t do your research.

                                    It’s Illegal! 

                                    Yep, you read that right! While it would take a lot (of time and money) for someone to take legal action, it can be done when brands make false or misleading marketing claims. 

                                    It Affects Small Businesses 

                                    Brands are taking up space with greenwashing claims that are making visibility harder for companies like Basic Revolution and others actually following environmentally friendly practices. 

                                    It Makes Us Feel Good

                                    We feel good when we make sustainable choices. It hurts to know we were tricked and our decision wasn’t as sustainable as we thought.

                                    In a world where we see 6,000-10,000 ads per day it’s overwhelming and hard to know what the right decision is!

                                    The right decision is always what fits best into your life, but here are some tips to help you rinse through the greenwash.

                                    Tips for Rinsing Through The Greenwash

                                    Use outside resources to evaluate a brand’s claims

                                      Sites like Good On You evaluate brands across categories like labor rights, materials, the fashion transparency index, and more.

                                        Look At The Website

                                            Check for a sustainability report as well as clear goals, info, and plans around sustainability.

                                            Do they have more than one sustainability claim? Like offering a place to recycle clothes AND purchase sustainable new ones 👀

                                            Are they trying to distract you with images and phrasing that doesn’t match what they’re selling?

                                            Do they use phrases like “made with” vs “contains 100%” For example: “Made with recycled materials” reads differently than “Made from 100% recycled materials”.  

                                              Look for 3rd party certifications

                                              There are quite a few, see a full list here

                                                Disposal Plan

                                                    I like to look for an end of life plan. When I’m done with this item, does the brand help me dispose of it in a safe way? 

                                                      Action > Perfection

                                                          It kind of sucks that we have to do all this insane research, but every single dollar you spend, counts. H&M won’t take a hit if you stop shopping with them, but a small sustainable brand will certainly notice your business. 
                                                          If you’re overwhelmed, check out Andrea’s #1 Tip To Be More Sustainable.

                                                            Wouldn’t you agree learning about sustainability can be a wild ride? Sign up for the Basic Revolution newsletter and give them a follow on Instagram to engage with a community that shares the same values as you.

                                                            I’ll catch you there!

                                                            About the Author
                                                            Lauren Plug is a freelance sustainability copywriter and owner of Copy by LP! Most of her energy is spent on trying to live more sustainably in Chicago, but she enjoys eating gluten-free, vegan ice cream from Vaca (year-round), being ignored by her 2 cats, and helping sustainable companies create quality content so they can focus on what they do best.