You may think about who grew your food, but do you also think about who made your clothes? Just like it’s important to be conscious about consuming over-processed, industrialized food, the same goes for fashion. Fast fashion is after all an industry fueled by low wages, poor worker standards, chemicals and waste. Starting to sound familiar? Call it McFashion if you like.
As the world becomes more aware of the issues around the clothes, the fashion industry follows. Need proof? Just see how many organic cotton t-shirts you can find on the market today. Fashion brands are quick to slap a “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” label on just about everything. But like in all industries that have understood that their clientele wants to make smarter, more conscious decisions, there’s a lot of greenwashing that goes on to give you the illusion of feeling good about your purchase.
Here are five examples of greenwashing at its best (worst?) recently in the fashion industry.
1. Installing solar panels, but continuing to sell cheap clothes
While fashion giant Forever 21 has announced plans to install largest single-rooftop solar-power system in Los Angeles County, it’s also busy selling cheap clothes to consumers everywhere. In fact, at the same time that the company announced its solar power plans, it also opened a 18,000-square-foot concept store that promises the cheapest of the cheap. As reported by Ecouterre, “F21 Red boasts numbers that defy probability, with camisoles that start at $1.80, tees and tank tops at $3.80, leggings at $5, and jeans at a barrel-scraping, economics-defying $7.80.” Solar panels aren’t a bad thing. But they are a small drop in the bucket in relation to Forever 21′s impact, social and environmental, overall.
2. Promoting sustainable fabrics in a world of fast fashion
While the people behind H&M have been vocal about their desire to make their business as sustainable as they can, the underlying question is always going to be: can fast fashion be sustainable at all? While the use of more sustainable textiles is admirable, it does not erase the reality that in a world of cheap fashion with quick turnaround, we buy more and we use it less. A report by the American Apparel and Footwear associations found that “Americans annually purchase an average of eight pairs of shoes and 68 pieces of clothing.” Fashion at that level of consumption is inherently not sustainable. It’s companies like H&M, that are fueling a culture of disposable fashion, which no amount of organic cotton t-shirts can change.
4. Claiming that fast fashion can be sustainable
A recent piece in The Guardian taking a look at fashion and sustainability is titled “Fast Fashion Doesn’t Automatically Mean Unsustainable.” The author writes, “today we expect the products we want to be available and affordable. We just need to be smarter, produce and consume sustainably.” Note that the article appeared on a partner section that was funded by H&M. The author is right, we do expect the products we want to be available and affordable, and herein lies the problem.
In 1930, the average American woman owned nine outfits. Nine. Compare that to today, when “our total spending on clothing has actually increased, from $7.82 billion spent on apparel in 1950 to $375 billion today.” We all need clothes to wear, no one is going to argue that front, but we consume too much, and that consumption is in and of itself inherently unsustainable.
5. Launching a recycling program… that gives you money to buy more clothes
The corporate sustainability community applauded H&M when it launched its recycling initiative, intended to help cut waste in the fast fashion world. Recycling clothes sounds well and good, but at a closer look, H&M was giving an incentive to recyclers that simply would bring them in to buy more.
When the initiative launched, the H&M Corporate website was offering £5 ($7.70) off a purchase of at least £30 for anyone that brought in clothes to be recycled, and on the U.S. site, customers were promised a voucher for 15 percent off one item for every bag of old clothes. You were limited to two vouchers per day. Customers today are still promised vouchers. Green initiate or smart green marketing that ends up making the company more money?
Making public commitments to clear up chemicals from supply chain, but not doing it
For a few years, Greenpeace has been running a campaign calling on the fashion industry to commit to “zero discharge of all hazardous and persistent chemicals at all points in global supply chains.” But some brands that have gotten on board haven’t done what they said they would do, and Greenpeace has called out Adidas and Nike for their conscious marketing yet not so conscious actions, which according to Greenpeace don’t go far enough. “Instead of these half-measures, shouldn’t a supposedly trendsetting brand like Adidas be amongst those leading the industry towards the elimination of all hazardous chemicals and the adoption of safe substances and innovative new production methods?”
High levels of chemicals were recently found in swimwear produced by both Nike and Adidas.
Committing to change is commendable. Actually sticking to it is even better.
Photo Credit: Francesca Romana