A 2022 guide to navigating greenwashing
Fashion brands seem more sustainable than ever. Are they?
Still from The Devil Wears Prada
Well, we did it, Joe. Fashion is fixed. The high street is awash with organic cotton, you can drop your old clothes off to be recycled when you’re buying new — even the ultra-fast fashion players are coming out with sustainable collections. The planet is at peace now. Right?
“We have seen brands want to say how much better they’re doing than they used to, being much more transparent, and introducing new products with new materials that are going to appeal to the consumer,” says Gordon Renouf, co-founder and CEO of Good On You, the platform which rates fashion brands on their performance across three key areas: people, planet, and animals. “So, there is clearly an impact on the way a good chunk of the fashion industry wants to present itself. That doesn’t necessarily follow that the environmental impacts are better.”
Despite positive consumer perception of major brands, data shared with me by Good On You shows that just 2.68% of ‘large’ brands (those with a turnover of £41 million or more, comprising fast fashion, luxury brands, and most major high street brands) score Good for the environment. 89.37% score Not Good Enough or Very Poor in the same category, and 91.54% score Not Good Enough or Very Poor for labour.
Unlike the team of analysts, climate scientists, researchers, and data experts at Good On You, the average consumer doesn’t have the time to scrape every single bit of data off the internet and analyse it before a purchase. And even the markers that consumers do know to look out for, ones long thought reliable, can be misleading. An article published in the New York Times in February, for instance, revealed that between half and four fifths of what is “being sold as organic cotton from India” is not genuine due to an “opaque certification system rife with opportunities for fraud.”
Meanwhile, a Changing Markets report released the following month, stated that “the majority of [certification] schemes…represent a highly sophisticated form of greenwashing.” At their best, the foundation writes, they represent a “patchy promise” that guarantees little assurance of sustainability — perhaps you’ll get a small production practice that makes the eco-friendly cut, or a single section of a long supply chain. “At worst, they are unambitious, opaque, unaccountable and compromised talking-shops… enabling greenwashing on a vast scale.”
Sustainability is a complex, multi-faceted topic and even the data that journalists rely on to communicate it is patchy. Is fashion responsible for 2% of global greenhouse emissions? Between 8 and 10%? 8.1%? It’s nigh-on impossible to say with certainty, and brands use the complex, cloudy nature of the topic to their advantage, introducing increasingly sophisticated-sounding measures, knowing that even the experts are scratching their heads over the facts, figures, and language involved.
“Brands attest to their sustainability by doing more — producing sustainable collections as well as their regular ones, using a greater variety of sustainable materials — when much of the answer really lies in doing, and making, less.”
Even fast fashion brands, those you may consider to be the worst offenders, are now certified to the hilt, and partnered or aligned with the likes of the Better Cotton Initiative, CanopyStyle, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. It would be disingenuous to pretend these moves achieve nothing. “What’s completely impossible to prove is what would have happened without [these small measures]. Would we be in an even worse position than we’re in now?” Gordon says. But it’s the factors that could really make a difference to the planet – the overproduction of garments, the cheap offshore labour, the ever-plummeting prices – remain almost entirely unchanged. So the question becomes: proportionally how much can these efforts really be offsetting?
Brands attest to their sustainability by doing more — producing sustainable collections as well as their regular ones, using a greater variety of sustainable materials — when much of the answer really lies in doing, and making, less. As an increasing number of brands launch resale marketplaces, for instance, it’s worth pointing out that it’s again an added extra, with no further strategy to use the new income stream as a way to facilitate producing fewer new products. Resale also burdens the consumer with the task of redistributing their clothes in order to keep them out of landfill — an individual solution for a global problem. Yet, as evidenced by the sheer amount of clothing and textiles which do end up in landfill, it’s not a reliable one. Many simply don’t have the time in addition to their working lives to undertake such a task and, if we’re being completely honest here, others don’t have the inclination.
Revealingly, while many brands throw everything including the kitchen sink at finding sustainable solutions that don’t involve scrutinising their core business model, they’re happy to do less when it comes to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, despite promises to do so being a core tenet of sustainability marketing. Many brands focus their efforts to reduce emissions on areas they directly control like their own shops, offices, and energy supply. But they turn a blind eye where it counts: their supply chain. By overlooking everything within it, from subcontracted factories to farming and transportation, they fail to address where most of their environmental impact lies.
“As brands become more sophisticated in their greenwashing, and rely on blinding consumers with industry jargon, our collective knowledge and questioning will make up the strongest line of defence.”
Despite taking the path of least resistance, just 40% of retailers surveyed in March said they’re on track to meet their targets. And not all targets are equal. To have a real impact, brands not only need to think about their supply chains, they need to align their targets with the scientifically-approved goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees necessary to keep our planet habitable. Some brands are doing this, you’ll know when they use the phrase ‘science-based targets’. But according to the fashion non-profit Remake, just one brand, Levi’s, is on track to meet its science-based target, and even they admitted that it was likely just a side effect of the Covid slowdown.
You should be able to trust what brands say: if a company claims and appears to be genuinely sustainable, it should be. The introduction of a new raft of greenwashing guidelines may help. In the UK, for instance, the Green Claims Code was launched to make it clear to brands what they can and can’t say. And around the world, brands who are breaking similar guidelines are finding themselves facing legal consequences.
But rules need to be upheld and we all know that in this country, the government doesn’t like holding big money businesses to account. So, unfortunately, the best practice is to maintain a healthy dose of cynicism about everything supposedly sustainable brands say: look at sites like Good On You for reliable ratings, check to see if a brand follows up about its targets, and keep your eyes peeled for the proportion of products they class as sustainable.
“The more consumers are aware of the problems that the fashion industry causes, and the potential solutions, then the more they engage in their daily lives,” Gordon says, “and the more the importance of regulation, to back up their efforts, becomes in their political mindset.” We cannot fix the industry as individuals, we need laws and regulations, but as brands become more sophisticated in their greenwashing, and rely on blinding consumers with industry jargon, our collective knowledge and questioning will make up the strongest line of defence.