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Is greenwashing common among brands?

Brands are using sustainability as a marketing tool, so take the trouble to educate yourself and unravel hidden half-truths

There are many tools to help consumers measure transparency and public disclosure.
There are many tools to help consumers measure transparency and public disclosure. (Getty)

If I could have the proverbial pound for every time I am asked to give an opinion on whether a brand is greenwashing with their latest sustainability offering, I would have amassed a small fortune, given the number of brands that are producing “conscious” collections, and the number of people clamouring to know if those claims are valid.

My reply is always the same: Inform yourself, there is enough out there if you are prepared to look.

My opinion doesn’t matter as much as you developing yours.

A recent review by the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network, a network of governmental consumer protection authorities from over 65 nations, found products that boasted of great environmental credentials weren’t as green as they seemed. Without naming any brands, the review stated that 40% of the sustainability claims made online—for instance, a fashion retailer was promoting clothes as “recycled cotton” without even listing the amount of recycled cotton used—could well be misleading.

Can you believe it when a high-street retailer says their conscious collections are made fairly? Does that mean all supply chain workers, from cotton farmers to garment workers, are paid a living wage? And when luxury brands say they will slow down the endless fashion circus of catwalks and seasons to address our addiction to speed and quantity, do you question if this action will also implicitly reduce the volume of products they produce?

What do you do if you see that a mainstream brand you wear has been culturally appropriating designs and techniques from indigenous jurisdictions for their gain and not that of the original creators?

Can you trust that organic means organic? Do you think that recycled packaging balances out the use of other virgin materials? Do you believe in bamboo?

Technology is on our side when it comes to accessing information, and available to nerds and non-nerds alike; even technophobes like me can easily navigate search engines looking for clues.

Sure, brands don’t (yet) make their policies as easy to find as the products they bombard us with, but when it comes to the larger ones, there are many tools that measure transparency and public disclosure, including apps like Good On You. Whether you are in India, Germany, Brazil or Sydney, there are places to learn more about sustainable fabrics. There are webinars, Moocs (massive online open courses, such as those on FutureLearn) and downloadable resources to inspire and educate. And there are loads of small, niche brands across the world that don’t greenwash at all because they are doing exactly as they are saying, and will be open to answering your questions.

If you think about it, as consumers we can often take hours browsing online for that perfect seamless fit: How about using some of that time to check if those sustainability claims are true, and if they perfectly fit your principles too?

There is only one way to expose a greenwash, and that’s with knowing.

Because there is no excuse any more to play deaf and dumb when it comes to our own consuming habits, it’s a very simple choice: I can do what I can do, within my means and within my circumstances, and the more I know, the more I will be able to speak truth to power. And that power needn’t be that high up after all, you can speak about what you have learnt in your community, at your children’s school, in your place of worship, with your friends and family.

Knowledge ensures you can unravel the hidden half-truths, find the inaccuracies masquerading as clever words, re-count the numbers that don’t match.

It will be like learning a new language, because, after all, isn’t marketing just a language? Undoubtedly, brands are using sustainability as a marketing tool, so get to grips with what they are saying.

Objectively, at this point in time, all mainstream brands are greenwashing, in the sense that whatever they do cannot possibly come close to repairing the centuries of human and environmental exploitation on which their operating systems are built. But if you do your homework, you might come to think that some brands greenwash better than others, and their actions will achieve something serious, or you may decide they have only taken a bunch of relevant words, fed them into the latest influencer’s mouth, and the people and places they are proclaiming to help will remain as marginal as they were before their nanosecond of celebrity- induced visibility.

However, when it comes to greenwashing, there are two things I ask you not to do: The first is to think that this is all too complicated to wrap your head around. It isn’t: The fashion industry exploits people and planet and these wrongs must be made right. And the second is, don’t think of yourself as being one, don’t ever come to the conclusion that what you do is a drop in the ocean, that your small actions don’t count.

Even though you know wearing something again and again, or buying more sustainably, or paying attention is nowhere near enough to solve the problem, it is nevertheless a series of steps towards finding solutions that you must keep taking.

You also know that nobody is perfect but many can do better, so be the one who does. The most sustainable garment is the one already in your wardrobe.

Analyse your clothes, look at what you buy, and start by posing some questions to yourself first, so that you will know what to look for when you go searching for the answers.

Orsola de Castro is the co-founder of Fashion Revolution, a non-profit that advocates industry reform.

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