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  • Leanna Christina

How to spot greenwashing & woke-washing in fashion

Words and phrases such as sustainability, environmentalism, the climate crisis and social justice have rapidly become a part of many people’s daily dialogue, and now ’greenwashing’, ‘woke-washing’ and ‘whitewashing’ are hot on their heels, as it becomes increasingly important for us to be able to separate the brands putting in the hard work from those who are just faking it.

Greenwashing

make people believe that your brand is doing more to protect the environment than it is

Whitewashing

an attempt to stop people finding out the true facts about a situation

Woke-washing

is when companies cynically prey on customers' social awareness

These issues are prominent and problematic in every industry, but fashion houses have come under particularly heavy criticism in recent years for not only the environment devastation, waste and exploitation that thrives within its structure, but also for the lengths that they have gone to to hide it from their customers. Fast fashion houses were among the first to become labelled greenwashers, early last year H&M infamously shared new green claims, including a pledge to use solely recycled or sustainable materials by 2030 - they also came first in Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index 2020. That sounds like the definition of what we could consider a sustainable brand. Doesn’t it?

Yet, beneath the marketing we find H&M is strategically box-ticking - or greenwashing. There is zero addressing of the impact of mass production on the planet, and there is no acknowledgment of garment workers forced to work for less than a living wage. Fast fashion relies on mass consumerism and exploitation, so no matter what the advertising campaign may say, fast fashion can never be truly sustainable. But even beyond the well known fast fashion brands like H&M, Zara and Primark - the textile industry is an exploitative eco-nightmare.

THE TEXTILE INDUSTRY

  • Makes huge profits by exploiting 74 million garment workers (of which 80% are women of colour) - uses child, prison and forced labour. The workers are subjected to poverty wage and dire working conditions

  • It is the second largest consumer of the world’s water supply: each year the usage amounts to the equivalent of 32 million olympic sized swimming pools (set to increase by 50% by 2030)

  • It accounts for 8% of all global greenhouse emissions

  • It produces more co2 emissions than the aviation and shipping industries combined

  • It is responsible for 20% of industrial water pollution

  • POLYESTER is found in approx. 60% of all clothing is made from oil, 98 million tonnes per year, and that is set to increase to 300 million by 2050

  • 50 million trees are logged each year to make fabrics such as Lyocell and Viscose

The truth of the matter is that a sustainable brand cannot, and does not only consider environmental impacts but factors in social justice, including but not limited to: fair wages, workers rights and safe working conditions. If a brand is not ethical, by default it cannot claim to be sustainable, because non-ethical, yet environmentally friendly processes still require the exploitation of human beings. Brands have two options here; to address these issues one by one, take accountability and have traceable facts to prove it; or disguise (whitewash) figures.


"True sustainability is a nuanced conversation that extends not only [to] the materials used or the labour conditions but [to] the scale of production and consumption as well," says sustainable fashion and social justice advocate Aditi Mayer. Ultimately we all want to build a more transparent, fair and intersectional fashion industry. It won’t happen overnight but, as Aditi says, the goal is for brands to "not [use] sustainability or diversity as a pure selling point but a grounding philosophy of how the brand operates and understands the metrics of success.”

Whilst some of this is unintentional and results from a lack of knowledge about what sustainability truly is, it is often intentionally carried out through a wide range of PR efforts. The common denominator amongst all greenwashing and whitewashing is that it is not only misleading, but it’s actually hindering further sustainable design and circular economy initiatives. Ergo, environmental problems get worse as greenwashing distracts and misdirects well-intentioned consumers down the wrong path.


There is a similar problem with woke brands who cynically attach themselves to trending causes in order to gain visibility, like Balenciaga making Koala t-shirts to raise money for the Australian wildfires last year. They failed to see the irony in manufacturing unnecessary products to raise money for a climate related crisis ... "moral merch" is a clumsy, lazy knee jerk reaction to changing times that fails to have any true positive impact. Brands used to avoid political messaging for fear of offending customers with different views, but these days the danger is them not being committed enough and so we see these brands jumping to support social causes without committing themselves to actually helping. Let's straighten this out.

Purpose over gimmicks

Look for brands who align themselves with a cause and a purpose, that actively support and engage with the work or community involved, this means that they are likely listening to what is needed and acting upon that rather than impulsively jumping on the bandwagon. Implementing equality, fair wages and financial support are usually of more use than slogan t-shirts and aggressive social media posts.

Numbers, not words

If a company is truly committed to sustainable practices, they will be proud to be held accountable and will be transparent with measurable figures rather than glossy, green slogans. If you can’t find out what you need to know about where they are sourcing/manufacturing materials and who works for them (including what they are paid and where they are based) easily enough, they probably don’t want you to know.

Who are you investing in?

Fast fashion has reduced purchases to transient impulses rather than what they actually are - investments. You are investing your money in a company in exchange for a product or service. So look at who you are investing that money with, is it a small business or a billionaire? The former is more sustainable by default. The best thing you can do here is to invest in companies (people) that actively integrate sustainability at every level of their business; rather than those who may release small sustainable “collections” (like H&M’s conscious range) which in reality are anything but.

Who are they investing in?

Even the most planet-friendly fabrics will pass through many hands before it reaches us, and for a truly sustainable approach there must be fair treatment of each person up and down the supply chain - from those who grow/prepare the materials, to garment and factory workers, the transport employees and the local communities affected by this trade. If a company is taking advantage of factories in poorer parts of the world (particularly the Global South) where there are low wages and few health and safety restrictions, it is doing so knowingly.


Vegan doesn't equate to sustainable

Unfortunately, at the moment there are many vegan alternatives that are made from massively polluting plastic derived materials. This is a branding technique to align the brand with current consumer trends and demand - another form of woke washing. This isn’t to say that all vegan pieces are bad for the environment, but its a term that cannot exclusively be taken to mean sustainable, we need to look into what other practices they are implementing, and not take desirable descriptors or material innovation to mean more than what they are.


Just ask

The power of social media! Ask a brand outright about their entire supply chain, and if they can’t answer you, take that investment elsewhere. You have the power to hold brands accountable to their promises (or claims), and the more you know the more power you have (that old chestnut). Brands do not underestimate the power of collective consumer demand - that’s precisely why they are going to the lengths of green/white/woke washing the hell out of their images in the first place! So just ask them:


"Who made this?"


Still having trouble distinguishing? There's an app for that! Good On You rates fashion brands on ethicality and sustainability