What is greenwashing and how to spot it

The Vildnis team has been nice girls and boys for a long time but, having just received an invite to a prestigious conference where the keynote speaker on sustainable fashion is from one of the UK’s most unethical fashion brands, it’s time for us to call bullshit…...We need to talk about greenwashing.

What exactly is it, you may ask. According to Cambridge Dictionary, greenwashing is “an attempt to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.'' And at the moment it is happening all over the fashion industry as everyone is scrambling around to get onto the sustainable fashion ‘trend’.

First, a little credit to those major conventional fashion brands that are making genuine attempts to become more sustainable. We should, of course, recognise that when they are discussing sustainability and what they are doing to be better, it helps spread the message.

However, they are still amongst the most polluting businesses in the world and there is no need to treat them like rock stars. In my opinion, it becomes a problem when a brand (more often than not a big well-known fast-fashion brand) starts pretending that it is the leading force in the sustainable fashion industry without doing much to prove it other than some great marketing stunts.

Of course, we can just close our eyes to it, but I feel strongly about the need to shine a spotlight on it now as there is a real risk that their greenwashing will contribute to an erosion of consumer trust in genuinely sustainable/eco-friendly brands.

To put things in context, allow me to share a story with you. I grew up in Aarhus, Denmark where, sometime in the late 80s/beginning 90s, there was a big scandal related to the council’s new recycling system. It was their first attempt at introducing recycling bins in every household, and each house was sent a fancy package with bins, bin bags and brochures explaining exactly what had to go where. People completely bought into the idea and started recycling like mad. After a while, news broke that all of the rubbish that the residents were carefully separating was destined for the very same incinerator, whether recyclable or not… I am sure that the council’s intentions were good, but somewhere along the line something had gone horribly wrong. Imagine the fury amongst the population (250,000 people) who had been sorting their rubbish to no avail. The result? Most people stopped recycling and it took years to reestablish the trust to get the residents to start sorting their rubbish again.

I believe that greenwashing can cause similar damage and hence it is important to talk about it before it becomes the norm and something we just accept.

The fact that some of the major culprits are introduced as keynote speakers at important sustainable fashion events such as the Global Fashion Summit and Drapers Sustainable Fashion Conference is deeply troubling. Why should we give brands who are greenwashing so much air time – if any airtime at all?

Yes, they are taking steps to improve their practices, but they are also pretending to be much better than they really are in order to drive sales.

As a consumer it can be difficult to see through the fakeness, so in order to help you spot it, here are some fashion-related examples:

1. When a brand has a tiny collection of sustainable items sitting amongst hundreds, if not thousands, of non-sustainable items.

2. When only some of the fibre content is eco-friendly (which allows the brand to legally advertise the product as recycled/organic/sustainable) while the rest is conventional . To give you some examples: a recycled dress in 25% recycled polyester/75 % polyester mix, or organic cotton jeans in 50% organic cotton/50% cotton mix. Oh, and I recently spotted a ‘sustainable’ recycled wool jumper made from 60% recycled wool/40% acrylic (say what?!)

3. When a brand is marketing something as ‘natural fibres’, insinuating that the product is then good for both you and the planet, when the material is in fact conventional cotton which has required large amounts of synthetic pesticides and significant quantities of water in its production.

4. When a brand offers you a voucher to buy something new if you hand something old back to them for recycling. I am not talking about when a jeans brand offers you a discount on your next pair if you hand in your old ones for upcycling/resale. That is sustainable in my world and a brilliant initiative. No, I am talking about the brands who accept any garments/brands and give their customers a £5 voucher to spend on their next purchases (while sending 95% of the ‘recycled’ garments off to landfill). This is a marketing ploy.

Once you have spotted the greenwashing going on, the best way to help stop it is by asking the brands in question about their practises and materials. And please, keep on asking if they try to fob you off with a wishy-washy answer – that’s what they do best, remember!

Thanks for reading this far. You are a star. I needed to share this.  

1 comment


Completely agree with you on point 2, I frequently receive emails (particularly from a certain British athleisure brand) telling me to check out their “Sustainable” collection, upon reading that their products were a “blend” I enquired of their customer service team as to the recycled content – 45%! This is disingenuous, misleading and outright green washing – if a brand doesn’t state the proportion of recycled fabrics or mentions the word “blend” be very sceptical! Tribesports (www.tribesports.com) have a recycled and a part-recycled collection – if only all brands could be this honest!

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