As the fashion industry grapples with its impact on the climate, it must also reckon with how it speaks to sustainability. Greenwashing — when brands use vague marketing terms to communicate a product’s “sustainable” credentials, whether related to carbon emissions, water use, makeup or clothing production — has long been a concern for campaigners and others who work to educate consumers about fashion. harmful practices. It has become more sophisticated over time: it’s hard to walk into a store or an e-commerce site without seeing a bill labeling a product as “green,” “conscious,” or “eco-friendly.” .
But the clever (and often deceptive) method of marketing can have serious consequences – for the climate and those working throughout the fashion supply chain. Only recently have some perpetrators been investigated or held accountable. For example, Zara has raised suspicions for failing to publish internal audit reports after committing to switch to 100% renewable electricity by 2022. The Dutch Authority for Consumer Markets (ACM) went after H&M and Decathlon over potentially misleading marketing claims, including terms such as “Ecodesign” and “Conscious”. Both brands promised to “adjust or no longer use sustainability claims on their clothes and/or websites.” Fashion Business reported last fall.
The fashion industry accounts for up to 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions, while producing around 20% of global wastewater. In addition to its elegant and free thrills, it has a significant impact on the climate – and its future. Unfortunately, many brands are using this information incorrectly.
“[Fashion] it’s a market where the products we make provide zero utility, so any bit of value embedded in a product—that allows a brand to charge a certain price, that allows customers to feel they want it or that it’s worth that price— it’s completely derived from perception, almost exclusively,” says Michelle Gabriel, director of Glasgow Caledonian University’s Masters of Science in Sustainable Fashion programme.
In other words: Marketing has unprecedented power in fashion, even compared to other industries. If sustainability is a major concern among consumers, it’s natural for fashion companies to target their marketing to appeal.
“Sustainability is one of the most significant ways that any company, any product, any business can add value to a product in the fashion market,” says Gabriel. “Brand, status and exclusivity is one of the most significant ways, but in those tails is sustainability.”
In the US, there are marketing consistency definitions and guidelines from groups like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in order to protect consumers from outlandish claims. The UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), meanwhile, has also proposed guidelines similar to those of the FTC, “aimed at cracking down on greenwashing”, according to its website. But the FTC’s Green Guidelines, for one, haven’t been updated since 2012; Their last refresh before this was in 1998.
These gaps leave marketers plenty of time to develop and use new, unchecked tactics.
Gabriel argues that fashion has been created as “a recipe for a green explosion”. But it’s becoming a bigger issue in the eyes of consumers: Greenwashing lawsuits are on the rise and was a key issue in Fashion BusinessIndustry Report 2023.
Sustainability is not easily defined. In fact, it’s a moving target, which makes some level of greenwashing inevitable for every trader. But there are still companies that shamelessly wave these words around to make dollars. And that has to change.
Bridging the consumer gap
For shoppers, trying to buy clothes ethically can feel like a hopeless Whac-A-Mole. It’s easy to fall prey to greenwashing without extensive knowledge of what to avoid. (You don’t have to have the equivalent of a graduate degree to judge whether a T-shirt is made the “right” way.) Pricing pressures amid a growing economy don’t make it any easier.
Meanwhile, fast fashion companies offer trendy, readily available styles for cheap. Sometimes, even these brands engage in eco-friendly claims, despite being known for producing thousands of new items a day from plastic-based fabric at an average price of only about $10 and engaging in manufacturing practices that have a terrible human toll. Boohoo got heat for its “sustainable” collaboration with Kourtney Kardashian Barker, which used an unspecified amount of recycled fibers. Like Fashion Nova.
But there are still large numbers of people leaning towards fast fashion, as evidenced by Shein becoming one of the world’s biggest sellers in 2022. All of this points to a tension between consumer values and their actions.
“It’s difficult because it’s also culture, right? Founder of Fashinnovation Jordana Guimarães says, noting how this desire to chase the shiny and new by “keeping up with the Joneses” goes back to after World War II.
As disastrous as fast fashion is for the environment (and how exploitative it can be for workers), Gabriel points out that, from a business perspective, it’s efficient—it just lacks ethics.
“How do you tell people who have never had access to fashion—because they didn’t have the right income, because they weren’t of the right class, because they weren’t of the right geography, because they weren’t cool enough— [not to shop]? Well, now they can come in and get that fashion. They can perform that class, that personality for a very low price,” says Gabriel. “Fashion is a system that’s built on status.”
Scroll to Continue
Fashion is a means of self-expression and fast fashion offers this opportunity to the masses. But this comes at a high moral and environmental cost. Raising customer awareness through campaigns and spokespeople can help educate buyers about these issues so they can make more informed decisions. But it still likely won’t be enough.
“I think it’s very quintessentially American, the premise that individual consumption is going to get us all out of the evils of the fashion industry,” says Remake founder and CEO Ayesha Barenblat, warning against anything that prompts you to buy. more okay. to help the planet.
Instead of putting all the onus on consumers, the onus should be on companies to do better. Legislation is a big focus for activists, as it can help minimize greenwashing and other ecological practices.
In January 2022, a New York coalition announced the Fashion Sustainability and Social Responsibility Act (called the Fashion Act), which aims to hold the state’s largest fashion businesses accountable for environmental and social issues. State laws like this would require companies to comply or take their business elsewhere. (This is not a new strategy: Vehicle emissions laws tend to take a similar path, being implemented state by state to press for widespread change.)
Then, that spring, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the Fashion Accountability and Building Real Institutional Change (FABRIC) Act, which may be the first federal fashion bill to address labor concerns and workers’ rights in USA.
Bringing attention to greenwashing and enforcing the laws that regulate it are just two pieces of a bigger puzzle, Shannon Welch, director of sustainability for communications firm Chapter 2 Agency, adds: There’s more to do. , such as improving “supply chain traceability and operation”. with their suppliers to implement more renewable energy transitions.”
Creating a science-based metric
Despite the best efforts of some brands to be transparent with their supply chains, accurately report their emissions and disclose labor practices, the fashion industry lacks a science-based metric that measures the level of sustainability of a company – and it even affects the speed of movement of fashion legislation.
“Regulators are very concerned. They are aware and they are trying to do something. But the point is that there is no such thing as standardized tools or a matrix,” Sandrine Devillard, a senior partner in the consumer and retail sectors with minority at McKinsey. & Co, says.
Buildings have energy efficiency ratings, as do most appliances. France has a health classification system for packaged foods. These metrics may be imperfect, but they move the needle. Fashion could use some.
“We believe companies need to invest in research and smart data to gather strong, verified evidence to credibly validate and support sustainability claims that can be transparently shared with stakeholders,” Devillard says. . “This could be, by the way, at the level of the entire industry: It doesn’t make sense for Brand A, Brand D, and Brand Z to invent this.”
Increasing cooperation within – and between – companies
Sometimes, greenwashing can result from a lack of communication within a brand. Having everyone up and down the chain of command knowledgeable about sustainability and the supply chain can help people across teams work better together and understand their common goal.
Greenwashing can also be intensified by companies not sharing information with each other. (As if saving the planet wasn’t a group effort.)
“I’ve been kind of shocked at how much talk has been made and how little action has been taken,” says Guimarães. “In terms of where we need to go for real change – not just in the industry, but in the world – there needs to be a lot more action.”
Fashion is not immune to the general 1970s mindset of “Shareholder Primacy Theory,” where businesses choose to answer only to shareholders, as opposed to stakeholders, Welch argues.
Companies can benefit from sharing their resources and verified suppliers with their so-called “competitors” – it would create cooperation to co-create a healthier landscape. In her experience connecting executive leadership through Fashinnovation, Guimarães says industry members are often excited to connect, share and learn together. They simply lack the infrastructure to do so.
Want more Fashionistas? Sign up for our daily newsletter and get it straight to your inbox.