Getting dressed should be easy, from the initial purchase to putting your new favorite outfit on repeat. But sometimes, it’s hard to know what direction the eco-conscious compass is pointing. Greenwashing has become an all too common and confusing tactic in just about every industry.
The good news is with some digging, you can usually weed through the wash to truly find the green.
What Is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is defined as an organization that spends more time and money marketing itself as environmentally friendly than actually reducing its impact. It’s also sometimes known as “climate washing.”
Like its cousin “brainwashing,” greenwashing is misleading. The term was coined in a 1986 essay by environmentalist Jay Westerveld. He called out the hotel initiative for guests to reuse their towels to conserve energy… while the hotels oh so conveniently saved on their own laundry costs and did little else to reduce their overall footprint. This was the hotels’ way of “going green.”
In the fashion industry, this shows up as marketing clothing as “sustainable” through deceitful branding, ambiguous advertising, and green claims without transparency. Making things more confusing, some eco-claims are only partially inaccurate or phrased in a misrepresentative way rather than blatantly false.
Greenwashing doesn’t always have bad intentions; it can be a case of overenthusiasm for a greener product knowing that’s what buyers are looking for. In any case, it’s unfortunately on the rise in a time where we’re all trying to do the right thing and make more eco-conscious decisions.
Greenwashing In Fashion
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: the clothing industry’s footprint isn’t great. Fashion is responsible for around 20% of industrial water pollution yearly from textile treatment and dyeing. Not to mention the heavy carbon footprint and chemical usage for growing fibers like cotton.
Fast fashion (quickly produced, cheap and trendy clothing) is one of the biggest culprits of greenwashing and environmental impact in the apparel industry. These clothes are low-quality and generally don’t last more than a few wears before finding the landfill. Fast fashion greenwashing has ranged from a small collection of sustainable clothing with green company promises, to the claim of future infrastructure to recycle fibers without the plan to make it happen.
Here's an example of greenwashing: a big company markets a new line of 10 items that are made from recycled fibers. They also promote a new clothing recycling program available in select stores. The thousands of other clothes that they produce continue to use acrylic and rayon fibers without much transparency for the production process or factory they’re made in.
This is seen as greenwashing because this small clothing line and very select recycling program isn’t going to offset the company’s much larger footprint. Instead of addressing the bigger picture issue, the company is showcasing their good-doing through something that ultimately has very little impact.
We hear you: but aren’t those small steps toward progress? We totally agree that everyone needs to start somewhere, big companies included. However, accountability is equally important. It’s one thing to claim planet-friendliness through a few shirts made from recycled fibers and entirely another to put in the hard work to make lasting changes company-wide.
How To Spot Greenwashing
We shouldn’t need a degree to figure out if our purchases put the Earth first. Though it can be difficult, here are a few tips to help you verify if that Little Black Dress is actually green.
- Feel Good, Fluffy Language – What does “natural” actually mean? Is it really “organic?” For social responsibility, note that there’s a difference between a “living wage” and “minimum wage.”
- Green Products, Dirty Company – Watch out for double standards. Question what bigger steps the company is taking to reduce their impact.
- Avoiding Eye Contact – If the “sustainable” claims are vague or the clothing’s “recycled content” is unspecified, be dubious. Look for data, facts, and transparency to back up claims.
- Made Up Certifications – Meaningful certifications in the apparel industry include: bluesign®, OEKO-TEX®, FSA-Certified, Global Organic Textile Standard, B Corp Certification, Fairtrade International, and Global Recycling Standard. Watch out for green-sounding certifications that aren’t on this list and, ultimately, are meaningless. Which brings us to…
- If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is – Not all that glitters is green, or so the saying goes. Use your sleuthing skills to find information that backs up claims.
Greenwashing is most effective when it successfully fools customers, so company honesty is the best way to identify genuine concern and care for the planet. Remember, we’re all in this together to do our part for the planet – and that includes wearing clothes that make us feel good… inside and out!