What is greenwashing? - culthread

What is greenwashing?

Many fashion brands are taking a step in the right direction in attempting to become more eco-friendly. This feels reassuring to the consumer, but it can be challenging to differentiate between the real and the fake, between those that are really making a conscious effort to combat this crisis, and those that are using this to their advantage through a process of ‘greenwashing’. Can you believe that some brands would want to trick us into thinking that they’re doing their part for the planet?

So, what really is greenwashing? 

Greenwashing is a term that dates back to 1986, created by environmentalist Jay Westervelt in an era where consumers didn’t have the luxury of extensive fact-checking that we have today. Essentially, greenwashing is when a company uses false or misleading claims suggesting they are doing more for the environment than they actually are, a lie that leads consumers to believe they are purchasing sustainable or eco-friendly items when frankly they are not. This leads people to feel overwhelmed, confused and unsure on whether their purchase is kind to the planet or damaging it further. 

Greenwashing and Fast Fashion 

When thinking about environmentalism, sustainability, the climate crisis and social justice, we must consider both the pros and cons of brands initiating these conversations. The increase in discussion around these subject areas is highly beneficial for raising public awareness and encouraging consumers to think twice about their purchasing habits. It has, however, also made greenwashing an increasingly important term to separate those who are actually making a difference vs those who are pretending to, in order to drive sales.

Fast fashion and greenwashing happen to be an unfortunate match made in heaven. The irony here is that fast fashion brands mass produce inexpensive articles of clothing which consumers may wear once and then throw away. Fast fashion brands try to jump the sustainability bandwagon in order to generate more sales, when in actual fact their marketing around this topic is the opposite of their actual business practices. The bottom line is, fast fashion can never and will never be sustainable. 

Have you been witness to greenwashing? 

H&M is a key example when it comes to greenwashing, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise when it is one of the top fast-fashion brands. H&M may appear to be at the apex of fashion sustainability; they came first in Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index 2020 which focuses on transparency and disclosure, and have made a number of new ‘green’ claims, one of which is a pledge to use only sustainable or recycled materials by 2030. However, in the past, H&M has said that they “rarely” burn unsold clothes, though some estimate that they have been doing large amounts of burning for a number of years. Ultimately, the massive overproduction by H&M of cheap, fast-fashion items is incredibly harmful for the planet.



The reality is, a holistically sustainable brand should take into account social justice factors such as safe factory conditions, equal pay, garment worker rights and more, as well as environmental factors. Those that are truly sustainable should have nothing to hide and therefore be confident in sharing this information, addressing each of these factors and demonstrating accountability and traceability. They should be able to provide facts to back up what they say.  

What can you do to combat greenwashing?

If you’re unsure what to look out for and would like to become a more educated, environmentally responsible shopper, here are some tips on how to spot brands who are greenwashing and what to look for in a brand that is truly sustainable: 

Look out for the right words and numbers

-      Many brands use language like ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainable’ without don’t any factual evidence to back up their claims of sustainability. The processes and choices that they have made in order to be eco-friendly and/or sustainable should be clearly detailed and explained. Large brands that are making a conscious effort to be sustainable tend to keep track of this, measuring their reduction in environmental impact each year and setting quantifiable goals to hold them accountable, so look out for those who aren’t providing this information, those that are all talk, zero facts. 

Check for certifications

-      To verify any claims a brand is making, look for industry-standard certifications. These are likely to be found in the ‘about us’ or ‘help’ section of their website, or perhaps at the bottom of the page. Some of these certifications may include Global Recycle Standard, Bluesign®, Cradle to Cradle Certified and Fair Trade Textiles Standard. If they don’t have the certifications to back up aligning claims, it is likely they are greenwashing.

Vegan doesn’t necessarily mean sustainable

-      Synthetic alternatives to leather and fur can be portrayed as sustainable with them not being derived from animals. These alternatives may be made from polluting and plastic-derived materials, as well as oil, which can have extremely harmful effects on the planet unless they are made responsibly. It is therefore important not to buy into something solely because it is labelled vegan and continue to do your research about that particular product, ensuring that the brand is implementing sustainable practices throughout their business model.

Natural isn’t always the best option

-      Natural materials may seem intuitively sustainable, but the reality is that this depends on how these materials are sourced. Natural materials may be grown with a large number of pesticides and chemicals, and can in fact be very polluting. Some require massive amounts of water, in short supply in many countries. Some may pose other environmental issues, such as deforestation, unless the material comes from a certified source. 

Look into who is making your clothes 

-      Although it is becoming increasingly common for brands to publish more information regarding their suppliers, they may neglect to acknowledge the treatment of their factory workers or offer complete transparency on this matter. For the largest brands, some information can be found online, with specific websites providing reports and regular updates about supply chains, production lines and social and environmental impact, as well as investigative issues concerning the treatment of factory workers. 

Don’t be afraid to ask

-      If you can’t find the information you want online, try emailing or messaging the brand through social media. Ask exactly what you want to know and make an informed decision when it comes to purchasing depending on how transparent and responsive the brand is.

Essentially, knowledge is power.


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