Eco-conscious, environmentally friendly, sustainable—these are just some of the buzzwords being used to promote the green credentials of brands and corporations. But while the surge of companies responding to the climate crisis is hugely positive, it can be difficult to know whether you’re being a responsible consumer or buying into greenwashing.
Coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westervelt, greenwashing—or ‘green sheen’—is when a company uses misleading or false claims to suggest it’s doing more for the environment than it actually is. “It’s easy to say something is sustainable and not have to prove it,” says Amina Razvi, executive director of Sustainable Apparel Coalition. “It’s not always backed up by real, credible data. It makes it difficult for consumers to make smart choices.”
This common practice means it’s important that consumers do their research and ask questions. “Don’t just listen to the marketing,” comments Harriet Vocking, chief brand officer at sustainability consultancy Eco-Age. “Look at the company’s website and read what they are doing.”
Here are six ways to spot greenwashing in the fashion industry and become a more environmentally responsible shopper.
1. Look for numbers, not words
The easiest way to work out whether brands are greenwashing is by looking for figures that support their claims, rather than taking them at face value. “Companies use words such as ‘sustainably made’ or ‘eco-friendly’,” says Razvi. “[But] what percentage of their products are made with recycled materials?”
Find out whether brands have measurable targets set out on their website. “What quantifiable goals do they have listed publicly?” Razvi adds. “Companies truly committed to sustainable practices are setting ambitious goals that can be backed by science. They measure and are committed to reducing environmental impacts [every year].”
2. Natural isn’t always more eco-friendly
Natural materials such as viscose, rayon and bamboo are promoted as eco-friendly, but it depends on how they’re sourced. For example, 150 million trees are cut down for viscose production every year, according to Canopy. “Viscose is responsible for deforestation, unless it comes from a certified source,” explains Orsola de Castro, founder of campaign group Fashion Revolution.
Meanwhile, bamboo is a fast-growing fibre but it’s sometimes grown with pesticides and chemicals are often used when it’s turned into fabric. “Unless it comes from an organic source, bamboo is incredibly polluting,” de Castro continues.
Doing your research is key. Tools such as the Higg Materials Sustainability Index can help, which compares the environmental impacts of different textiles. “The more you can learn about how and where materials are sourced, the more informed you can be on how sustainable they are and any potential trade-offs,” says Razvi.
3. Vegan doesn’t necessarily mean sustainable, either
In fashion, vegan can mean products are made from synthetic alternatives to leather and fur. “[These] are touted as sustainable as they are not from animals,” comments Vocking. “But they are [often] made from oil, which [can be] very bad for the planet.”
Check what any listed alternative materials are made from. “Both vegan leather and faux fur can be made responsibly or they can have detrimental impacts on the environment,” Razvi adds. “Consumers who typically shop [for] these are concerned about animal welfare, but there’s an environmental cost also associated with this solution.”
4. Find out who is making your clothes
Brands are increasingly publishing more information about their suppliers, but offering less transparency about the actual treatment of their factory workers. “[The information] doesn’t necessarily lead you to best practice, it leads you to a factory and you don’t know what is going on,” says de Castro.
Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index highlights information released by top brands about their supply chains, production lines and social and environmental impact. Meanwhile, Fair Wear Foundation and Worker Rights Consortium provide reports and updates on their investigations into the treatment of factory workers around the world.
De Castro also advises finding out whether workers are allowed to form unions and if they’re being paid a living wage. “If [they] have an opportunity to be part of a union, [they are] asking for things in unison and there is safety in number,” she explains.
5. Check for certifications
Look for industry-standard certifications that verify any claims being made. These include but are not limited to Bluesign®, which covers environmental health and safety in the manufacturing of textiles; Cradle to Cradle Certified™, given to products that are fully biodegradable and compostable or can be used repeatedly; and Fair Trade Textiles Standard, which ensures workers are being protected throughout the supply chain, including their right to unionise.
6. Invest in brands with a holistic approach
Finally, invest in brands that are adopting a holistic approach by looking at the bigger picture rather than focusing on individual issues. “Leading companies are integrating sustainability into everything they do—not just one collection or a handful of pieces,” Razvi says. “Sustainability touches every aspect of the business and should be integrated as such, from headquarters, to design, manufacturing, shipping, and sales.”
“A brand that is openly transparent and communicative about its steady sustainability journey is always a better bet,” concludes Vocking. “[Rather] than one that uses sustainability slang with little to no evidence to back it up.”