Have you ever come across a brand that says they’re ‘green,’ environmentally conscious, or sustainable and questioned whether these claims are accurate? The likelihood is that these fashion brands are implementing greenwashing tactics to depict an eco-friendly image.

So what is greenwashing? It is when a company misleads its consumers into believing that they’re doing more to protect the environment than they really are. This can involve investing time, money, and resources to convince consumers they’re an environmentally friendly brand.

It is when a company misleads its consumers into believing that they’re doing more to protect the environment than they really are.

It’s a deceptive marketing trick designed by companies to make fabricated claims about their environmental practices and products.

Greenwashing is going on full-scale in the fashion industry. Brands were jumping on the sustainability bandwagon in 2020, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic when consumers were rethinking their shopping habits. Evidence of changing attitudes has been highlighted in a 2020 Conscious Fashion Report by Lyst.

Since the beginning of 2020, Lyst has seen a 37% increase in searches for sustainability-related keywords. Over the past three months, searches for “upcycled fashion” have grown 42%. Demand for “second-hand” and “pre-owned” fashion pieces has increased by 45%. Over the past 12 months, the term “slow fashion” has been responsible for over 90 million social impressions, suggesting the beginning of a shift in shopping behaviors.

As consumers are rethinking their habits and becoming more sustainably conscious, brands are modifying their approaches to show that they are also eco-friendly in a bid to reconnect with consumers. But are they really refocusing their efforts on sustainability? The stark reality is that any green initiative brands instigate are just a ploy to increase profits.

Here are the ways some brands are putting greenwashing strategies into practice.

H&M

A woman walking outside wearing a red dress and carrying an H&M bag, wearing a black crossbody bag and holding her phone.
[Image Description: A woman walking outside wearing a red dress and carrying an H&M bag, wearing a black crossbody bag and holding her phone.] Via Fernand De Canne on Unsplash
H&M’s Conscious Collection has been under the microscope by the Norwegian Consumer Authority for greenwashing. The collection is said to be made out of sustainable materials like organic cotton, recycled polyester, and Tencel. However, H&M has not explained how these materials are better for the environment.

H&M has also been accused of burning tons of unsold clothes in 2017, a practice unfortunately common in the fashion industry despite uproar by consumers on this practice, and holding an inventory of $4 billion in unsold clothes in 2019.

And it doesn’t stop there – last week, the fast-fashion retailer announced that Game of Thrones actor Maisie Williams is the brand’s global sustainability ambassador, igniting further criticisms of greenwashing by hiring a high-profile celebrity to front a slick marketing campaign that glosses over how quickly and cheaply they churn out clothing.

Anti-fast fashion campaigner Venetia La Manna spoke about H&M’s contradiction when it comes to sustainability and greenwashing practices, explaining that “Ultimately, the sheer amount of product H&M produces is causing irreversible harm to both planet and people, and completely outweighs their sustainability efforts. Fashion this fast can never and will never be sustainable.”

ASOS

ASOS logo is displayed behind a computer keyboard. A toy trolley and device displaying the ASOS website is placed on top of the computer keyboard.
[Image Description: ASOS logo is displayed behind a computer keyboard. A toy trolley and device displaying the ASOS website is placed on top of the computer keyboard.] Via The Guardian
ASOS recently launched its first 29-piece circular fashion collection. The term circularity refers to minimizing ‘virgin’ natural resources and adopting reused and recycled materials as part of a continuous closed-loop process.

ASOS introduced its own eight circular design principles which cover zero-waste design, minimized waste, and disassembly, and are said to be aligned with the three foundations of the circular economy defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation: design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.

Although this sounds like a promising start to a sustainable future for the company, you have to look at the bigger picture – this collection represents just 0.035 percent of the brand’s 85,000-strong product offering.

What is also baffling is that ASOS will consider a piece to be circular if they meet at least two of their eight principles – not all eight.

As journalist Sophie Benson argues, “Creating one small collection that cherry-picks circular principles is akin to putting a plaster on a broken leg; a tokenistic move that doesn’t solve the issue in hand.”

Primark

A white and black concrete building. The Primark logo is placed on the building.
[Image Description: A white and black concrete building. The Primark logo is placed on the building.] Via Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash
Primark launched the “A Better Future” campaign in September 2020. They released new clothing and homeware collections, which have been made using either material derived from recycled plastics or using sustainable cotton.

Although these can be seen as positive steps, it needs to be said that Primark still carries out unsustainable practices. As reported by Forbes, cotton takes around 2,700 liters of water to grow enough cotton for one t-shirt and has led to depleted water supplies in some areas of the world. It is also Primark’s most used textile across clothing and homeware such as bedding and towels.

As with H&M, Primark also has its own celebrity endorsement. TV presenter Laura Whitmore is the ambassador for Primark Cares, the retailer’s sustainability initiative. This goes to show how celebrities are easily and inevitably caught in the greenwashing agenda set by fast-fashion giants.

Zara

A brown shopping bag featuring the Zara logo is laid flat on a green park bench.
[Image Description: A brown shopping bag featuring the Zara logo is laid flat on a green park bench.] Via Silviu Beniamin Tofan on Unsplash
Back in July 2019, Zara’s parent company, Inditex, announced that they will only use sustainable, organic, or recycled material in all of its clothing by 2025. An encouraging development, but greatly undermined by the fact that they wouldn’t commit to producing less clothing or slow down its manufacturing process. Their current business model has a design-to-retail style of five weeks and introduces more than 20 different collections a year – a model that isn’t feasible to maintain if Zara is truly committed to their 2025 target.

What else do these brands have in common?

According to Fashion Checker, these brands provide no public evidence that their suppliers are paying a living wage. That means these brands cannot prove that the workers making their clothes earn enough to live on. Sadly, workers in the fashion supply chain are not given a second thought by brands when it comes to paying workers enough to live on. If it means less money to line the pockets of shareholders, it isn’t deemed worthy.

How to spot greenwashing

There are more brands complicit in greenwashing. Here are some of the ways you can spot and avoid greenwashing:

  • Watch out for buzzwords with no clear meaning: These can include words such as ‘environmentally conscious’ or ‘eco-friendly’.
  • Watch out for green imagery: Brands are likely to display images that make them look environmentally friendly. For example, forests, farms, wildlife.
  • Check the label: Check to see the breakdown of the materials used in the clothing. Brands may claim that their clothing is made out of recycled material, but the recycled material may only make up a small percentage of the clothing.
  • Look for third-party certifications: Third-party endorsements can help verify that the brand you’re buying from is genuinely sustainable.
  • Look for transparency: See whether a brand openly provides details about their suppliers and processes.
  • Check the cost: Ethical and sustainable clothing cost more to make (by adopting environmentally friendly resources and paying garment workers a living wage) and will cost more than fast-fashion clothing. If prices are fast-fashion cheap, can they really be ethically and sustainably made?
  • Rethink buying from fast fashion brands: Sustainability and fast fashion can’t go hand in hand. If a brand mass-produces clothes at a low cost, and the same brand releases a sustainability drive, they are evidently employing greenwashing tactics.

Fast-fashion brands, in particular, are doing everything they can to convince consumers that their business isn’t detrimental to people and the planet, so that consumers can shop guilt-free. To stand against their greenwashing practices, we as consumers need to be fully aware of their tactics so that we’re not tricked. So let’s use this knowledge to make more informed decisions on what to buy and what not to buy.

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  • Rebecca Azad

    Rebecca Azad works in the creative and charity sector in project and event management, communications and as a content writer. She runs her own sustainable fashion blog. You'll usually find her in a cosy corner of a coffee shop sipping a latte whilst reading a novel or writing a new article for her blog or publication.

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