Green washing - what is it and how are we fooled?

Image courtesy of H&M

Image courtesy of H&M

For those with an untrained eye, the fast fashion industry looks like it’s getting a whole lot more sustainable. Fashion chains have started to create entire lines based around being ‘eco’, ‘fair’ and ‘conscious’ ­– a brilliant way to convince the unassuming shopper that they are an ethical and sustainable company to their core. However, these lines dedicated to a more sustainable way of producing clothes is little more than ‘greenwashing’, a term used to describe a company promoting environmental initiatives without enforcing basic practices to ensure sustainability as a company on the whole.

As a consumer, especially one that is geared towards conscious living, it can be hard to navigate which companies are behaving responsibly in the sourcing and production of their clothes. In addition, telling the ‘greenwashers’ apart from companies who really are trying to make a change towards more sustainable production can be difficult too. Ultimately, it can come down to your own conscience, what is important to you as a buyer of the products and what your own priorities are.

Aniko Legner, intern at sustainable fashion website What’s Your Legacy, believes that fast fashion companies such as H&M should be commended for their efforts towards the advancement of sustainable technology, especially because smaller brands don’t have the budget for that level of commitment. Although she also understands that being a responsible company is multi-faceted, especially when you are producing at the scale that the Swedish fashion giant is: “there are so many aspects to these things. There are the workers’ rights, there is the fabric, and how much you are making as a company. Can H&M ever really be sustainable with the kind of approach they take to fashion? Making something cheap so that you can throw it away once you’ve worn it once? Can that ever really be sustainable?”

One aspect H&M does deserve credit for is its transparency in its sustainability initiatives, releasing annual sustainability reports detailing what they have achieved so far and their goals for the future. Traditional cotton farming for one instance is extremely damaging to the environment, with one shirt using up to 2,700 litres of water. Alongside this, the pesticides produced through the farming of traditional cotton causes 350,000 farmer deaths a year, along with countless hospitalisations. H&M is currently working towards using completely sustainably sourced cotton by 2020, and is right now at 43%. If you’re an optimist, you will see this as a huge move for such a massive brand like Hennes & Mauritz, who use a large amount of cotton in their collections. As a pessimist, that leftover 57% makes a huge difference to the quality lives of cotton farmers globally and the unnecessary wastage of water is damaging to the Earth’s ecosystem.

Co-founder of What’s Your Legacy, Madara Freimane, regularly researches on sustainable practices within the fashion industry and is an advocate for the advancement of new technologies, along with believing that every consumer can only do their best.  “I have a friend who owns a brand and she said that she sees other brands that say they are vegan or ethical but if they aren’t using organic cotton then they aren’t ethical,” Freimane tells us “This is because of how many chemicals go into traditional cotton farming. And this is how ethics is so complex.”

This is a move that is comparable to H&M’s competitors such as Arcadia Group (owner of Topshop) and Inditex (owner of Zara). Although both Topshop and Zara have implemented their own sustainable lines, ‘Topshop Reclaim’ and ‘Join Life’ respectively, they are yet again just denting the surface of the matter of sustainability. Especially when all three retailers promote, as The Fashion Law points out, “a throwaway culture fuelled by cheap clothing that has seen a sharp rise in the number of garments sold annually around the world.” Hitherto, the question of who is making their clothes is rarely addressed. In H&M’s 2016 sustainability report, they regularly mention their suppliers but they fail to put a face, name, or even wage to the employees that operate there, instead regularly using terms such as “fair” and “equal” and listing their own ambitions and goals to become a 100% Fair and Equal company. One of the benefits of buying from smaller brands, is the transparency when it comes to their suppliers or own factories.

Lauren McCrostie, Actress and Sustainability Advocate, who has been involved in events for Fashion Revolution Week and other sustainability causes, points out the cost of the scale of greenwashing:  “I’m not going to name names but there are massive high street stores that claim to be really conscious, and they put off this massive front to [their] audience across the whole globe. [They have] huge amounts of stores, ten on Oxford Street alone. And then the masses think they’re sustainable, when really they could be doing terrible things.”

Los Angeles based brand Reformation, that markets itself as the second most sustainable option, next to being naked, conducts factory tours in which its consumers and the press can look in on the environment they give their workers. In addition, on their Instagram page they upload short videos dedicated to different employees who conduct key roles in the making of their clothes. The benefit of this is the feeling of trust it establishes between consumers and the brand – enabling consumers to buy guilt free.

Even recycling initiatives and donating to charity causes more harm than people are led to believe. The Guardian reported last year that H&M’s recycling initiative is “fanciful”, as 1,000 tonnes of fashion waste they collected in their initiative would take up to 12 years for them to use within their collections. Yet, 1,000 tonnes is also the same amount of clothing H&M produces within 48 hours – so this is hardly a recompense.

“Companies try to indoctrinate their customers into buying what they believe to be ‘green and sustainable clothing’” says Fashion YouTuber at Haute Le Mode, Luke Meagher. “There should be barriers to stop this fake advertising. It's probably very hard for casual consumers who aren't reading about the fashion industry to stay educated. I would just say it’s important to try to educate them through a positive way, rather than shame them for it!” Brand databases such as Rankabrand and Project Just are great ways for a consumer to do their research on just how sustainable and ethical a company is, should they feel so inclined. The issue is, many consumers don’t want to spend their time researching how their clothes were made. Meagher agrees: “most consumers just don't think about or care for the consequences of fast fashion, and "greenwashing" gives them an easy outlet to just feel good about their purchases.”

The Acey, an e-commerce site that stocks responsibly sourced fashion, is one of the few ways consumers can ensure what they are buying meets their own standards. Founder Holly Allenby stocks a range of sustainable and ethical brands such as Veja, Svilu and Diarte, and believes it is up to the media to educate the masses on the environmental problems of the fashion industry. “I completely understand that the [fashion media] world is run by advertisers so some of the small emerging brands like ourselves or other people out there don’t have the budget to get exposure,” Alleny explains. “But I would say [magazines] play a massive responsibility of covering these issues in a relevant way. They have such a loud tone of voice that is heard by so many people.”

McCrostie agrees: “[The media need to] make everything as easy and accessible as possible because then you’re giving [the consumers] no reason not to buy sustainably. A lot of people just make the excuse “I don’t have the time”, it is time consuming.”

Listing sustainable sites such as What’s Your Legacy, Lissome and boutiques such as 69b as great ways to avoid greenwashing, McCrostie understands the difficulties behind buying responsibly: “Finding it in your budget, ticks all the sustainable list that you follow, you might want to try it on… All of these things, to make that journey of buying something easier and more enjoyable and less burdensome. A lot of people just want the convenient and easy thing.”

Ease of buying is what makes greenwashing such an easy feat for retailers. Consumers are going to be a lot less likely to ask questions when they think buying sustainably and holding brands to ransom will take up so much energy. Although, people appear to be waking up. “Consumers are definitely becoming more aware. People are becoming more aware of how to use their purchasing power,” Allenby notes. “But there’s a lot of work to be done. It needs to come down from the top in terms of big influencers and big retail influencers to market it as well so that the masses know about it.”

Martine Jalgaard, Fashion Designer, believes the lifestyle of throw-away fashion isn’t going away but that clever things need to be done in order to protect the environment and those making the clothes. “There is something wrong with something being too cheap if it has a heavy footprint afterword,” she says. “There has to be more of a connection and the price must reflect the footprint because if that’s not the case, people don’t give a shit.”

“The problem with fashion is it’s disguising so many bad things and once we start talking about what’s going on in India, people black out and don’t deal with it,” Jalgaard continues. “They choose to ignore it because they are just seeing the pretty product in the nice light in Oxford Street and that’s all they see."

What seems to be the underlying message is that transparency is what is needed, and after that, action. “We don’t have full transparency of the big companies, what their actual commitment is. Because that commitment doesn’t go hand in hand with the equity thinking,” Jalgaard says. Freimane of What’s Your Legacy agrees, believing that a step in the right direction would be making any step towards becoming a more responsible company:  “You might not be perfect,  but ensuring you are paying everyone a fair wage is important and the things like making sure some fabrics are sustainable will come later when you have more budget and can grow bigger.”