Greenwashing : Are you being lied to?
By Bella whittaker
Greenwashing is when companies claim that they are sustainable in order to hide the damage that they are actually doing to the environment. This term was invented in 1986 and it can be hard to spot because we are frequently misled by labels and environmental campaigns. Whilst it may appear that your favourite brand is trying to be more sustainable, often they are simply capitalising off of the new demand for responsibility. Anyone interested in sustainable fashion is aware that brands like Shein have based their entire business model on mass-producing items for very little money, and their damaging environmental effects.
Here are some brands that might surprise you!
Zara are manufacturing more than 450 million clothing items every day, this is not possible without huge carbon emissions and textile waste. Their new sustainability marketing shows that they have 100% energy efficient stores, but lots of the LED lights and other strategies used are simply mandated by the government, and just advertised as their decision.
Inditex, Zara’s parent company, said that it would only use cotton, linen, and polyester that was ‘organic, more sustainable, or recycled’ over the next six years. This is an example of buzzwords in advertising - what does “more sustainable” even mean? If it’s not a clear goal it’s unreliable.
Urban Outfitters is one of the most popular brands amongst UK fashion girlies, as they frequently deceive their customers through overpriced items and ‘vintage’ labelling. It is hard to determine exactly how much damage they are causing to the planet because they deliberately hide that information, refusing to measure their emission rates. They do have a ‘renewal’ campaign, with 22% of the women's sections allegedly being recycled. This comes with the tagline ‘100% Vintage Fibres’, but this vague description is a reflection of their larger issue with transparency. Without stating how they source and recycle their ‘Vintage Fibres’ on such a large scale, we cannot be certain that it has been done responsibly. One ex-employee even testified that Urban Outfitters purposefully damages unsold products to preserve the value and exclusivity of their brand. Allowing people to wear and re-wear unsold stock would have a more positive ethical and environmental impact than getting underpaid workers to re-hash vintage clothes.
Adidas themselves have admitted that 90% of products contain virgin synthetics. There are lots of problems with this: no recycling solutions exist at scale, they contribute to micro-plastic pollution in water every time they are washed, and they have a significant climate footprint. In fact, virgin polyester production generates about 700 million tonnes of CO2 every year. Part of their sustainability advertising includes the slogan “Stan Smith Forever. 100% iconic, 50% recycled”, but according to the French JDP, Adidas’ advert broke advertising rules and misled consumers. It suggests that 50% of the total shoe is made of recycled materials, which is not true. Plus, it’s misleading in its use of its “End plastic waste” logo; Adidas is still creating plastic waste, and the logo is just for its brand image.
H&M’s rapid clothing turnover, unsustainable practices (including the use of harmful chemicals in its products), and inhumane working conditions makes them one of the worst offenders for greenwashing. They launched a ‘green’ clothing line called ‘Conscious Collection’ in 2019, using more environmentally friendly materials such as organic cotton and recycled polyester to make new garments. The Norwegian Consumer Authority (CA) then forced them to apologise to customers for breaching marketing laws, attempting to appear sustainable when it is not. Their recycling program is another example of misleading advertising. Only a small portion of textiles can actually be recycled, and this is a resource-intensive process which lets off even more carbon emissions.
Ways to avoid being tricked by Greenwashing
Think about how much it costs, and how much is being produced - if it is a new item for a cheap price, be aware that someone is probably being exploited. If there is a lot of clothing being produced, there will also likely be a lot of textile waste.
Reuse! Buying second-hand or upcycling clothes means they are actually fulfilling the promise of being recycled.
Don’t trust buzzwords - ‘sustainable’ and ‘eco-friendly’ are often used to describe products that are actually neither of these things. These terms are subjective and difficult to measure, without facts these words usually mean nothing.
Natural or Vegan isn’t always better. For example, 150 million trees are cut down each year to create the ‘natural’ material viscose. Vegan leather and faux fur is also usually made of synthetic materials like polyester, so although you may be concerned about animal welfare, it is not necessarily the more environmentally friendly option.
Use helpful websites like British Vogue’s greenwashing guide: https://www.vogue.co.uk/news/article/greenwashing-in-fashio And https://goodonyou.eco where you can search for how ethical your favourite brands really are.
Finally, whilst it's important to be mindful and shop ethically, to completely be sustainable in the current consumer climate is near impossible!
Greenwashing is proof that people like us demanding change and trying to buy sustainably are changing companies’ priorities, even if that means they’re doing minimal to change their practices. Continue to shop as ethically as you can, and watch out for the corporations trying to scam you.