As the fashion industry grapples with its impact on the climate, it must also reckon with how it talks about sustainability. Greenwashing — when brands use vague marketing terms to communicate a product’s “sustainable” bona fides, whether that relates to carbon emissions, water use, fabric composition or production — has long been a concern for activists and others doing the work to educate consumers on fashion’s harmful practices. It’s only become more sophisticated with time: It’s hard to go into a store or onto an e-commerce site without seeing a tag bill a product as “green,” “conscious” or “eco-friendly.”
But the clever (and often misleading) marketing method can have serious repercussions — on the climate and those working across fashion’s supply chain. It’s only been recently that some perpetrators have been investigated or held accountable. For example, Zara has sparked suspicion for failing to release internal audit reports after committing to switch to 100% renewable electric energy by 2022. The Netherlands’ Authority for Consumer Markets (ACM) went after H&M and Decathlon over potentially misleading marketing claims, including terms like “Ecodesign” and “Conscious.” Both brands promised to “adjust or no longer use sustainability claims on their clothes and/or websites,” Business of Fashion reported last fall.
The fashion industry accounts for as much as 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions, while producing an estimated 20% of global wastewater. Aside from its chic and cheap thrills, it has a weighty impact on the climate — and its future. Unfortunately, many brands are using this information the wrong way.
“[Fashion] is a market where the products we make bring zero utility, so every bit of value embedded in a product — that allows a brand to charge a certain price, that allows customers to feel that they want it or that it’s worth that price — is entirely derived from perception, almost exclusively,” Michelle Gabriel, director of Glasgow Caledonian New York College’s Masters of Science Sustainable Fashion program, says.
In other words: Marketing has unprecedented power in fashion, even compared to other industries. If sustainability is a top concern among consumers, it’s only natural fashion companies will pivot 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 marketplace,” Gabriel says. “Brand and status and exclusivity is one of the most significant ways, but on those tails is sustainability.”
In the U.S., there are definitions and guidelines for marketing sustainability from groups like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in order to protect consumers from outlandish claims. The United Kingdom’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), meanwhile, has also proposed guidelines similar to the FTC’s, “aimed at clamping down on greenwashing,” according to its website. But the FTC’s Green Guides, for one, haven’t been updated since 2012; their last refresh before that was in 1998.
These gaps leave marketers plenty of time to develop and use new tactics unchecked.
Gabriel argues that fashion is set up like “a recipe for a greenwashing explosion.” But it’s becoming a larger issue in the eyes of consumers: Greenwashing lawsuits are on the rise, and it was a key issue in Business of Fashion‘s 2023 industry report.
Sustainability isn’t easily defined. In fact, it’s a moving target, which makes some level of greenwashing inevitable for any marketer. But there are still companies who unabashedly brandish those words to win dollars. And that needs to change.
Closing 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 on things to avoid. (You shouldn’t need to have the equivalent of a graduate degree in order to judge whether a T-shirt was made the “right” way.) Price pressures amid a toughening economy don’t make it any easier.
Meanwhile, fast-fashion companies offer trendy, readily available styles for cheap. Sometimes, even these brands engage in claims of eco-friendliness, despite being known for producing thousands of new items a day from plastic-based fabrics at an average price of just about $10 and engaging in manufacturing practices that have a daunting human toll. Boohoo caught heat for its “sustainable” collaboration with Kourtney Kardashian Barker, which used an unspecified amount of recycled fibers. As has Fashion Nova.
But there’s still a whopping number of people leaning into fast fashion, as evidenced by Shein becoming one of the world’s biggest retailers in 2022. This all points to a tension between consumers’ values and their actions.
“It’s difficult because it’s also culture, right?” Fashinnovation Founder Jordana Guimarães says, noting how this desire to chase the shiny and new while “keeping up with the Jones” goes all the way back to after World War II.
As catastrophic as fast fashion is to the environment (and how exploitative it can be to laborers), Gabriel points out that, from a business perspective, it’s efficient — it just lacks ethics.
“How do you tell people that never had access to fashion — because they weren’t of 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 go walk in and get that fashion. They can perform that class, that personality for a very low price,” Gabriel says. “Fashion is a system that’s built on status.”
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Fashion is a tool of self-expression, and fast fashion offers that opportunity to the masses. But it comes at a high moral and environmental cost. Increasing customer awareness through campaigns and spokespeople could help educate shoppers about these issues so they can make more informed decisions. But it still would likely not be enough.
“I think it’s a very quintessential American thing, the premise that individual consumption is going to get us all out of the wicked problems of the fashion industry,” Remake Founder and CEO Ayesha Barenblat says, cautioning against anything urging you to buy more in order to help the planet.
Instead of placing all the responsibility on consumers, the onus should be on the companies to do better. Legislation’s a big focus for activists, as it could help minimize greenwashing and other eco-shady practices.
In January of 2022, a New York coalition announced the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act (dubbed the Fashion Act), which aims to hold the state’s biggest fashion businesses accountable for environmental and social matters. State laws like this would require companies to comply or take their business elsewhere. (It’s not a new strategy: Vehicle emissions laws tend to take a similar route, being implemented state-by-state to pressure widespread change.)
Then, that spring, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the Fashioning Accountability and Building Real Institutional Change (FABRIC) Act, what could be the first federal fashion bill, addressing labor concerns and workers’ rights in the U.S.
Bringing attention to greenwashing and implementing laws that regulate it are just two pieces of a larger puzzle, Shannon Welch, the sustainability division director for the communications firm Chapter 2 Agency, adds: There’s more to be done, like improving “supply chain traceability and working with their suppliers to implement more renewable energy transitions.”
Creating a Science-Based Metric
Despite some brands’ best efforts to be transparent with their supply chains, accurately report their emissions and disclose labor practices, the fashion industry lacks a science-based metric that gauges a company’s level of sustainability — and this even affects how quickly fashion legislation can move.
“Regulators are very concerned. They’re aware, and they’re trying to do something. But the issue is that there’s no such thing as standardized tools or a matrix,” Sandrine Devillard, a senior partner in consumer and retail sectors at McKinsey & Co., says.
Buildings have energy efficiency ratings, as do most appliances. France has a health grading system for packaged foods. These metrics may be imperfect, but they push the needle. Fashion could use some.
“We believe that companies should invest in research and intelligent data to gather robust, verified evidence to substantiate and credibly support sustainability claims that could be shared transparently with stakeholders,” Devillard says. “This could be, by the way, at the level of the full industry: There’s no point for Brand A, Brand D and Brand Z to invent this.”
Increasing Collaboration Within — and Between — Companies
Sometimes, greenwashing can result from a lack of communication internally within a brand. Having everyone up and down the chain of command be knowledgeable on sustainability and on the supply chain could 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 is done and how little action is taken,” Guimarães says. “In regards to where we need to go for real change — not only in the industry, but in the world — there needs to be a lot more action.”
Fashion isn’t immune to the general 1970s mindset of “Shareholder Primacy Theory,” where businesses choose to only answer to shareholders, versus stakeholders, argues Welch.
Companies could benefit from sharing their resources and vetted suppliers with their so-called “competitors” — it would create collaboration 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 just lack the infrastructure to do so.