S & S Decoded: Hypocritical Window Dressing: The Art of Greenwashing & Sustainability Appropriation

This article was written in collaboration with Fashion Roundtable.

Buzzers at the ready – it’s time to call in the Lie Detector Test.  A white lie is one thing. Did you remember to send the email? Yes. Have you taken the bins out? Of course! Was it you that cleaned the kitchen? Absolutely!

But what happens when talk becomes cheap in the area where it REALLY matters most, sustainability.

This article explores the true definition of sustainability and greenwashing as well as the green aura and buzzwords surrounding the fashion industry. It investigates the commercialisation and scope appropriation of sustainability from the key retail market players. The culmination of these issues leads to my provision of solutions and tools on how we, as consumers, can learn to separate the friend from the foe to purchase with purpose.

Sustainability, as defined by the United Nations in 1987 can be determined as the “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Such a broad official interpretation lends itself to misinterpretation.  The Environmental Law Institute stated as a practice and term, it still “suffers from ambiguity that must be overcome if governmental and private-sector decisionmakers are to optimize the concept’s potential”.

With this, in recent years, we have witnessed the proliferation of related sustainable buzzwords including ‘eco’, ‘ethical’, ‘green’, ‘responsible’, ‘upcycled’, ‘bio degradable’, ‘transparency’ and ‘empowering’ to name but a few. The question remains how can we quantify the true commitment of these bold claims made by dominant fashion players?

As with many commitments regarding sustainable development, there is a large gap between sustainability rhetoric and actions. High street brands can talk about ethics and sustainability but that is not a pre requisite to them actively overhauling their business models.  

Parallels can be drawn between the Government’s Commitment to Net Zero Carbon Emissions by 2050, yet rejecting all proposals set out by the Environmental Audit Committee’s Fixing Fashion Report published earlier this year.

The Art of Greenwashing

So, what is greenwashing? American Economist, Milton Friedman coined this in the 1980’s as hypocritical window dressing.  In its contemporary form, greenwashing and appropriation of sustainability is the incorrect use of genuine green marketing activity to portray an organization’s products, activities or policies as environmentally friendly when they are not. The act of greenwashing, also known as “green sheen,” entails the misleading of consumers about the environmental benefits of a product or policy through specious advertising, public relations and unsubstantiated claims. 

Integrated into an increasing number of marketing strategies, these exaggerated tendencies often adopt misleading terminology and imagery to create smoke and mirrors behind the true goings-on in the ever-spinning production cycle of fast fashion. 

A brief glance at fashion’s dominant market players reveals various motions to pursue a sustainable image.

Last month, Inditex’s Zara set out its strategic agenda and pledge to shareholders for its clothing to be made using 100% sustainable fabrics by 2025. They also revealed plans to use 80% renewable energy across the company’s activities, including their stores, logistic centres and offices. (I’ve explored the true impact of Zara’s global value chain here).

Casting our eyes to H & M, they have been heavily criticised in recent months by the Norwegian Consumer Authority over its claims with its Conscious collection. Here the consumer watchdog stated the company provided ‘insufficient’ information about the nature of its sustainable style collection.

H & M Concious Collection

Simultaneously, we can look to its stylish Scandanavian sister & Other stories, embroiled with Stockholm Atelier labels. However, these garments are stitched in the exact same factories in Bangladesh, South East Asia and Eastern Europe for a fraction of the retail price which as always prompts the question, who made our clothes and what is the true cost?

Take Boohoo, another prime example. Earlier this year their PR strategy to appear compassionate was to announce the banning of wool in all garments, revoked a mere few hours later. The premise was then revealed that the brand actually didn’t retail any wool products, instead they utilise faux fur, comprising of typically unbiodegradable fabric *eye roll*. This runs in congruence, with the fact that they have been exposed as utilising factories in Leicester that pay their employees less than £3.50 an hour, a pitiful percentage of the national minimum wage. Yet this group that also owns .com giant Pretty Little Thing has reported revenue of £589 million in 2018 from over 6.4 million customers.

The surge in Boohoo’s profits demonstrate consumers are still largely swayed by prices over provenance of clothes.

Even Reformation, the American clothing brand that champions sustainable clothing with the ethos of ‘Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. Reformation is #2.’  Aren’t completely innocent. The maker of the dresses adored by bloggers and fashionistas alike currently only pay 22% of their workers a living wage.  However, their level of disclosure and openness to acting in a way to increase this to 100% is a step in the right direction.

As someone who tries to view everything through a lens of positivity, I find myself at times feeling overtly critical and cynical on the subject of green washing. But let it be known that launching a recycled polyester garment does not instantaneously offset the carbon footprint or social impact of a global fashion brand since the year of its origin.

How to tell friends from foe when it comes to fashion brands?

Having studied Corporate Social Responsibility during my Masters, detecting the friends from the foes can be done through a series of indicators across, social, environmental and governance metrics.

We need to look beyond the scope of simply releasing an ‘ethically made’ clothing line and dive into the disclosure behind the innate structure of an organisation. True indicators of a sustainable organisation, no matter how small for me, include whether  KPI’s relating to sustainability  are integrated into top managements payment incentives? What is the level of disclosure beyond a brands first tier supply chain? The atrocities such as Rana Plaza usually take place deep in the production network in the third, fourth, or fifth tier. What is going on with their scope 1-3 GHG emissions from raw material extraction all the way through to the consumer end phase using a life cycle analysis (take a look at an explanation of Life Cycle Analysis here). What truths does the organisation impart in the facts released their CSR or sustainability reports? Those that include the good, the bad and the ugly are a step ahead of those brushing their dirty fashion secrets underneath the carpet so to speak.

Other key considerations to integrate into your “bullshit barometer” to detect greenwashing:

  • Be wary of initiatives to reduce CO2 emissions at the head office, adding solar panels to a LDN HQ won’t offset a carbon footprint of a global company
  • Does their sustainability report actively address this?
  • Bold claims regarding recycled/minimal packaging can be made but what is the brand doing to counter its textile waste?
  • Underpinning the energy efficiency ethos with LED lightbulbs in HQ/factories is actually a legal standard in many countries but what is the rest of their production chain doing in regards to their energy consumption? Are they utilising renewable energy? Have they sought to repurpose their chemical waste?
  • Keep your eyes peeled for the fine print in target setting. Ambitious targets are an intrinsic part of greenwashing, a company’s targets may move to a 50% reduction in emissions over the next decade, but is this in line with their current rate of production or their productivity capacity following a decade’s worth of global expansion?! 
  • Next day deliveries and free returns on shipping for a sustainable clothing brand? Are they footing the bill for electric vehicles to offset the pollution and emissions for their delivery distribution?
  • Look to labour standards, living wages and commitment to equality across the company’s supply chain. Is anything Fair Trade certified? Is it a B Corp?  
  • Just because something is organic doesn’t automatically mean it is sustainable.

For solutions, we need to turn to small scale innovators as a bench mark on best practice for brands that are truly sustainable. I would suggest looking to the incredible groups that embrace a cradle to cradle philosophy and create materials from waste. These include Veja, Orange Fibre, Piñatex, or Econyl, a B2B who enable other companies to champion and embark on producing garments that hold true to the ethos of fashion for good.

With the creation of reporting such as the Fashion Roundtable Transparency Index, designed to score over 200 brands and retailers we are able to distinguish the best in class, most improved and dismal performers in areas including disclosure in processing, governance, traceability and supply chain transparency.

Technology is an enabler for the curious consumer and I would encourage those interested in both fashion and sustainability to use the app Good On You. Their ratings system is devised to shed light on the people, planet and animal welfare as a guide before purchasing. 

These examples are fashion industry specific however, it is fundamental to sound the alarm that green washing takes place across all consumer good categories. We only have to look to the misleaders in the food market with the rise of ‘healthy and sustainable’ yet highly processed vegan ready meals  or beauty players binging on buzzwords of clean and natural to shift their serums.

Final Thoughts

The inconsistency of sustainable claims with genuine action calls for a new type of fashion police. Is it time we call in Elle Woods and Judge Judy to lobby and set in place stringent policy restrictions on green washing and ‘sustainability’ marketing? Whether it’s a task for the ASA or yet another issue for the Environmental Audit Committee to engage with policy leaders on, fashion brands must be held accountable and responsible for their green washing claims.

Although we cannot install lie detector tests at every brand’s HQ, mindful creation is in the designers best interest.  

As customers, remaining educated is key and organisations that endeavour to engage their long-term clientele on how to utilise/care for their clothing more sustainably and what they are doing to offset their impact will gain competitive advantage over those that fail to comply.

Ultimately, I believe the responsibility lies in the hands of the creators and companies to put a rigid end to greenwashing, however all stakeholders across the value chain must engage to combat the misleading narrative.  

Achieving sustainability is not an instantaneous task and simple tick box exercise that can be checked by those in the boardroom over Q4 of 2019, it is an ongoing commitment and task of which more can always be done.  

Fashion Roundtable’s and VOGUE International Sustainability Editor, Clare Press has recently launched a ‘Green Wash Watch’ account so we encourage you to follow this to stay up to speed on the latest developments in this area.

As always, please keep your ears to the ground as we love to hear about any brands/organisations that are truly embarking on sustainability with a 360 approach and on balance those that you feel are fashion fabricators glossing over the truth.

Ending on a more positive note from Orsola de Castro, founder of Fashion Revolution “A greenwash could also be a precursor to real change, a step in the right direction – the true antidote to greenwashing is knowledge – be curious, find out and do something.”

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