Greenwashing may have changed form since the electrical corporation Westinghouse’s false claims in the 1960s, but the concept remains the same. It is a tactic companies use to deflect from their environmentally harmful practices by presenting themselves to consumers as environmentally aware and safe. The misinformation may reduce backlash for businesses whose production practices deplete environmental resources, but the harm done remains unaddressed.
In this article, we will reference fashion brands that take part in this practice, explore the damaging effects of greenwashing in the fashion industry, and offer some thoughtful solutions we can enact, as individuals.
Jason Ballard, CEO of sustainable improvement retailer TreeHouse, points out in an article in theguardian.com, “It’s misdirection, and it’s intended to shift the customer’s focus from a company’s appalling behaviors to something that’s peripheral.”
Unsustainable practices in the production of goods and services are not restricted to a single industry. Corporations like Shell, for example, are known for historically exploiting Nigeria’s petroleum and oil resources while damaging the ecosystem through oil spills and neglecting safety measures and environmental responsibility. Similarly, Gucci, Versace, Prada, Primark, Zara, H&M and Walmart have been outsourcing production to Bangladesh as far back as the 1960s, where factory owners are known to beat their workers – mostly women – for demanding pay they can live off, and safe working conditions.
Companies want to meet customer demands without updating their business practices to be more environmentally safe. They have an incentive to withhold truthful information from environmentally conscious customers, for profit. According to Environmental Sciences Europe 32, Article number: 19 (2020) and The Guardian, the 2015 Nielsen Media Research Poll showed a greater willingness (66%) of global consumers to patronize products that were marketed as environmentally sustainable. An even higher 72% willingness was noted among millennials.
While the profits of these advertisements and sales campaigns look promising to corporations worldwide, the result of greenwashing in the long term is the depletion of natural resources, land and animal habitats. An end to the production of things we need in our daily lives like fuel, energy, plant and animal foods, and clean water.
The production process needs a global reform, and multinational and government entities can execute such changes. The US Federal Trade Commission, for example, responsible for protecting the public from unsubstantiated advertising, can do its part to curb greenwashing by regulating information put out by companies and pressure them to update their business models and labour practices. According to Laura Demartino, Assistant Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Enforcement, the FTC is working to update its guidelines to reduce misinformation put out by companies.
Fashion designers and entrepreneurs have improved their businesses by training staff with business skill sets to compete globally while honing their craft and sharing cultural knowledge. Safia Minney, CEO, and Founder of People Tree created her fair trade fashion brand in Japan over 20 years ago, in response to fast fashion’s devastating effects on people and the environment.
Other designers like Orsola De Castro, Damur, Mira Von Der Osten and Buki Okomolafe address responsible consumption, inclusivity, cultural exchange, and collective environmental responsibility in their work. This is relevant because it offers an alternative to the exploitation and unsustainability in the fashion industry that resulted in the Rana Plaza Disaster in Bangladesh in 2013, where 1,132 factory workers died in a building collapse.
As much as the grunt work can be scaled up on a multinational level, we as consumers also have a role to play in this fashion revolution. It is important that we do our research on how companies produce and outsource their clothing and collections. In this way, our money goes toward making the production process fair and equitable, whereby factory workers are paid fair wages for their work, and the places they work in are safe, secure and well maintained.
Patronizing sustainable brands like Marks & Spencer, Levis, J.W. Anderson, and Bethany Williams that include taking care of the environment in their business models, goes a long way in reforming the fashion industry’s production process. It makes environmental conservation a greater and more profitable possibility for companies and the people they outsource work to.
While greenwashing and unsustainable production is an enormous problem within our global economy, it is not undefeatable. We can act now in our own small ways, creating awareness about the true cost of fashion and question the claims of so-called green companies.
Recycle your clothes, buy thrifted items, mend what you can, give away what you’ve outgrown or no longer need. The life cycle of our clothes begins and ends with us buying purposefully, taking care of what we own, and not being wasteful with things of value, like clothing.
We are part of the revolution. We hope you are too.