Sustainable Fashion and Social Norms Part 3: Greenwashing
2018 will most likely be remembered as the year that the concept of sustainable fashion went viral. Net-A-Porter magazine dedicated its ‘Summer Escape’ issue to fashion’s environmental impact on the ocean. Vogue interviewed cover model Gisele Bundchen on her work campaigning to normalize sustainability in the fashion industry. In November, Fashion Magazine dedicated its entire features section to sustainability issues. ELLE Canada featured a faux-fur fashion story. And that’s just a few of the magazines.
In July, a special side event at the UN High-level Political Forum discussed the potential for a UN Alliance on Sustainable Development, and the ways that the clothing industry at as a whole can work towards meeting UN sustainable development goals. Burberry’s practice of burning unsold clothing was made public, and within months the luxury brand announced that it would no longer burn goods, effective immediately. Brands such as Gucci, Stella McCartney and Adidas are actively working towards reducing their contribution to the plastic waste (including microplastics) polluting our oceans. Conferences like the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the Global Fashion Conference, and Planet Textiles specifically bring fashion industry professionals together to address creating change and leading sustainability within the clothing industry.
By all accounts, it would seem that sustainable fashion has become the new norm. The social and environmental costs of the clothing industry have been revealed. Increasingly, consumers are demanding accountability from brands, and brands are doing their best to deliver. Change is happening. Judging by the optimistic and empowering statements regarding corporate social and environmental responsibility on brand websites, the proliferation of sustainable options offered by fast fashion brands, the wash of inspiring selfies from influencers selling impeccably stylized ‘conscious’ lifestyles running rampant on social media—it could be easy to believe that a page has been turned, a new day has dawned, the fashion industry is indeed leading the way towards a future in which fashion does good by the planet, and by people.
And while this isn’t entirely inaccurate, it also isn’t entirely accurate either. Change is happening, but so is greenwashing. And it is during this moment of change, in which the status quo is being uprooted and new norms are being formed, that greenwashing becomes particularly insidious. Like a sheep in wolf’s clothing, greenwashing exists to lull well-intentioned consumers into feeling virtuous while changing nothing. And unfortunately, as oil prices begin to climb, and our oceans begin to die, and our homes are quite literally going up in smoke—change is mandatory.
Greenwashing is the “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image." Or more explicitly, as an article on the Good On You website has defined it, “Greenwashing is the use of marketing to portray an organization’s products, activities or policies as environmentally friendly when they are not."
Understanding that consumers are increasingly concerned about the environmental impacts of the clothing industry, brands are reacting. As Linda Greer has pointed out, “Brands are … responsive to threats to their reputation. [A brand’s] reputation is actually quite precious to them because they know perfectly well that there’s lots of places out there that consumers can buy a pair of blue jeans or a white tee shirt. And so they’re sensitive to threats to the reputation that they spend a lot of time and money creating, and the relationship with their customers.”
The obvious pro is that in an industry that is so consumer oriented, we have the potential to create significant change within the industry simply by demanding it. The con is that a consumer’s choice is only so good as the information that she is provided with, and when a brand employs greenwashing techniques, consumers can be manipulated into continued support of unethical practices. A truly informed decision is dependent on transparency, on knowing how and where products are made, what practices are being implemented to mitigate environmental damage, what a brand is doing to improve its potential for positive impact, and so on.
And while most brands include elegant and inspiring statements on their websites that strike all the right chords—protecting the environment, supporting human rights, valuing diversity, building community, and just generally wanting to do good and make the world a better place—there is rarely tangible evidence to back up any of these claims. Fashion Revolution releases an annual transparency report that rates everything from policy and governance to fair wages and releasing comprehensives lists of suppliers to the public. The 2018 report found that of the 150 major brands and retailers included in the report, the average score was 21%, and none of the brands scored higher than 60% (and this includes global brands who present themselves as leaders in the sustainable fashion movement). On average, most brand and retailers’ scores had improved only 5% from the last report. In other words, for the amount of celebratory noise happening in the fashion world about embracing sustainable values, there is little evidence to show that words are being translated into meaningful actions.
So long as a brand’s efforts towards sustainability are inspired only by ‘meeting the needs of the market’, then sustainability will never become a core ethos for the brand. And when sustainability is not at the heart of how a brand does business, then uplifting environmental responsibility statements will not necessarily translate into action. When the impetus is just to ‘give consumers what they want’, then slick advertising campaigns can be designed to project an image of environmental concern, without ever having to actually adopt that concern in any real or meaningful way.
What this comes down to is a question of values. Any brand can add a ‘sustainability’ component to their offerings, but so long as the core business model continues to prioritize profit (as expressed through unlimited growth) over people and the planet, then any efforts towards sustainability enter the murky territory of greenwashing. According to Linda Greer, it will be difficult enough for the industry (producing at current rates) to make the shift towards current sustainability goals; attempting to meet these goals while also achieving growth is impossible. Without a shift in values coming from clothing brands themselves, then efforts towards sustainability simply as a means to appease consumers lacks integrity. And it is this lack of integrity that leads to greenwashing, in which the image is more important than the actual ethics that the image would seem to portray.
Ultimately, it is our responsibility as consumers to engage critically with the brands we buy from. But in order to do this, we need to be presented with all the information. This means transparency, but it also means being able to trust that brands are led by human beings who share our own interests—a healthy, vibrant, habitable planet; thriving, economically stable communities; industry that does good by people and the planet.