The Cooler Sustainability Gets, The More Fast Fashion Will Greenwash You

by: Rosie Dalton | 3 weeks ago | Features

Image: Emma Watson has become a pioneer in the sustainability space. Image source.

For the past two years now the esteemed fashion journalists at Business of Fashion (BoF) have teamed up with global consulting firm McKinsey and Company to develop The State of Fashion Report. A comprehensive, thoroughly researched document, this tome lays down some of the major established and emerging trends in fashion business to date – and it predicts the future of the space for the year ahead. Interestingly, sustainability has been an important part of the conversation ever since the report was first launched. 

In the State of Fashion Report 2017, for instance, BoF listed ‘Responsible Innovation’ as one of ten key fashion industry trends. “Ethical innovation offers a way forward: Consumers and brands have prioritised sustainable fashion, which is transforming product design and manufacturing,” wrote BoF. By the time the State of Fashion Report 2018 rolled around, though, sustainability had gone on to occupy an even greater seat at the table. “Sustainability will evolve to be an integral part of the planning system where circular economy principles are embedded throughout the value chain,” BoF forecast of the coming year in fashion.

Indeed, it seems that their predictions are already crystallising in 2018, as Australian Vogue releases its first ever ‘Sustainability’ issue this week, guest edited by Emma Watson. And the Green Carpet Fashion Awards enters its second year. But there are some global companies that have been onto these trends long even before the likes of Vogue – and they have also been crafting clever ways to align themselves with the growing trend for shopping sustainability. These companies, of course, are the fast fashion giants that pour seemingly endless amounts of money and energy into studying consumer behaviours.

While it’s great to see brands getting behind sustainability, though, it’s important to determine the difference between genuine action and outright greenwashing. Ultimately, the cooler sustainability becomes, the more fast fashion conglomerates will greenwash you. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, Greenwashing is “disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.” It is essentially the promotion of eco initiatives and imagery, without the necessary business practices in place to actually minimise environmental impact.

So what does this look like in practice? Well in 2016, for example, Zara announced plans to partner with Lenzing (which is behind sustainable materials like Tencel and Modal), to “close the loop on textiles.” But that positive step forward obscured a very real and unavoidable contradiction, which is that fast fashion companies can never be truly sustainable. They simply produce too much clothing each week (let alone each year) for that to be possible – no matter how pesticide free their T-shirts may be.

Another prime example of fast fashion greenwashing was when H&M announced its self-titled ‘World Recycle Week’. The campaign was fronted by global star M.I.A. and was supposedly designed to encourage customers to recycle their pre-owned H&M garments. But again, the inherent irony at play here is that we wouldn’t need to recycle so many clothes if the clothes were built to last in the first place. Again, it simply sustainable to produce more clothing than is necessary, only to 'recycle' those pieces later on in the hopes it will all balance out. It won’t. Especially not considering H&M was accused last year of burning old clothes rather than recycling them.

“On paper it sounds like a good campaign to save unwanted clothes from being thrown out and ending up in landfill. However, the campaign's credibility is paper thin,” 1 Million Women wrote of the ‘World Recycle Week’ campaign when it first launched. “It's impossible to ignore the dates that H&M has chosen for their promotion disguised as a recycling initiative. It coincides with April 24, a day that three years ago 1,134 people died at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh making clothes for the high street. H&M is one of the world's largest producers of garments in Bangladesh.” This is greenwashing in action.

However, these are often more insidious forms of greenwashing to be wary of as well – like labels that proclaim ‘consciousness,’ ‘sustainability,’ or ‘natural fibres,’ without any real breakdown to back up those claims. So to avoid greenwashing in your own shopping practices, then, it’s important to not only look for genuinely sustainable materials – organic cotton, Tencel and Modal, for example – but to also interrogate the overall production practices of the brand in question. If they are producing as many garments as most fast fashion majors do, then their clothes are unlikely to ever be truly sustainable.


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