Is 2021 the year we finally tackle greenwashing?

A girl can dream!

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Hello New Year! I would say “happy” but that would seem, well, a bit disingenuous of me. We entered this year just how we left the last: in an absolute shit show, with an added white supremacist coup. Haven’t you missed my joyful newsletter!?

Among all the things I wish we could leave behind in 2020 is greenwashing. Let’s get rid of it all. The annual “conscious” collections that make up less than 1% of a brand’s overall clothing line; retailers picking and choosing what elements of circularity they want to adopt; and magazines uncritically championing “ethical” retailers with a long list of sweatshop scandals. The list could go on.

It’s time to tackle greenwashing once and for all - but how?

If you take this question to Google, the onus immediately falls on the consumer. Countless blog posts entitled “here’s how to spot greenwashing” flash across my screen as readily as sponsored fast fashion ads invade my Instagram feed (oh, the perils of constantly researching unethical brands). The issue with making the public an accountability body is that greenwashing is designed to confuse even the most clued up shopper.

The sustainability movement suffers from cultural illiteracy and Not What It Seams was created to help dismantle this language barrier. While I think it’s unfair that the responsibility lies with the consumer to do their market research, I want to help simplify this process. Which is why - sneak peak claxon alert - I am working on an anti-greenwashing campaign hub which will house lots of educational resources in one handy place and have loads of sharable templates to help lobby for greater industry-wide regulation.

Regulation is crucial because, without it, brands aren’t incentivised to radically reform their business structure. In other words, customer demands aren’t enough if the benefits of greenwashing still outweigh the risks. Unlike the food industry, fashion remains largely unregulated, meaning brands are free to market themselves as they please.

The UK’s competition watchdog could take us one step closer to eradicating misleading advertising campaigns. Its ongoing investigation into greenwashing in the fashion, transport, food and drink, beauty and cleaning sectors could equally inspire government action. It may also provide scope to prosecute brands for breaking consumer protection laws. California’s Environmental Marketing Claims Act provides a working template - though carrying a maximum fine of just $2,500 is not enough to deter multi-billionaire fashion CEOs.

The EU (raw subject, I know) is also attempting to crack down on greenwashing, with French and Dutch representatives jointly proposing greenwashing regulation laws to the European Commission. This would force European-located brands - and perhaps even brands operating in the European market - to verify claims of sustainability to the EU’s European Securities and Markets Authority. The EU textiles and clothing industry represents more than 30% of the world market, so the implications would be far-reaching.

But for now, brands that want to prove themselves have to turn to certifications. Though, it’s not a guaranteed solution. Smaller independent brands often lack the financial means to apply for third-party endorsements, so it’s not a fool proof indicator of sustainability or ethics. Nor is it always a reliable badge of approval. The vetting process varies greatly, with some certification processes being more vigorous than others. It also doesn’t prevent brands from falsely marketing these labels, such as claiming to be a Fair Trade company when only a small percentage of their clothing is certified as such. Or boasting that you source cotton through the Better Cotton Initiative without saying anything about the rest of your supply chain. Perhaps government regulations could streamline certification schemes.

As I often conclude, we all need to pull our weight in the fight against greenwashing, but it’s those at the top that hold the most power. We need government regulation, large fines, impartial investigations, advertising standards, transparency monitoring, higher taxation and enforceable deterrence measures that will make even the wealthiest fashion brands think twice before deceiving customers into buying clothes they don’t really need.

Is 2021 the year we finally tackle greenwashing? Well, a girl can dream!

In other news…

#TenCentsMore. That's how much brands would need to pay per garment to create a financial safety net for garment workers impacted by the pandemic. While factory workers have suffered a 21% decline in wages, there’s been an 11% increase in market value for big fashion brands. Pay Up Fashion are calling on all profitable big brands and retailers to contribute 1% of their net revenue towards direct relief and to pay 10 cents per garment to support severance and unemployment insurance. It’s a horrible reminder of how easily and inexpensive fashion solutions can be and how reluctant big earners are to delve into their guilty pockets.

Let’s talk about volume. Aja Barber did some number crunching this week and the results weren’t pretty. Word of warning: the following statistics aren’t for the faint hearted. Topshop currently has 4,114 styles of clothing on their website, of which 40 are from their “considered” collection. This means that less than 1% of what they’re currently selling is marketed as sustainable (and it probably isn’t even that sustainable, let’s be honest). Or take ASOS, for example. On Black Friday, they made 120,000 sales an hour! Or Inditex, who in 2018 placed 1.597 billion, yes billion garments on the market. Or Pretty Little Thing whose Sheffield warehouse is enough to make you feel nauseous. As Aja concludes, #ScaleIsTheProblem. I don’t care if you have a capsule range derived from recycled polyester and plantbased leather if a) it’s a miniscule part of your overall clothing line and b) it’s produced in the thousands. Material composition means shit if you’re still mass-producing garments and exploiting your workers. There’s nothing sustainable about this. If only fashion media could get on board.

Other brand updates and recommended reads:

  • In 2018, Burberry came under fire (pun intended) for incinerating £28.6 million worth of unsold stock to retain its exclusivity and “value”. This year, it will be donating its leftover fabric to students. Maybe I should have taken year 8 textile classes more seriously!

  • Topshop’s beloved flagship store closed its glass doors for the last time this month following Arcadia Group’s declaration of bankruptcy. Anna Cafolla reflects on what Big Topshop meant for so many women coming of age and what its demise signals for fast fashion.

  • I also enjoyed reading this vigil which waves goodbye to Big Topshop, “British fashion’s 00s mecca”.

  • While my recycled Converse really do something for my fashion ego, do they really do anything for the planet? I found out for The Eco Desk.

  • Meet the watchdogs making sure fashion does more than talk about being inclusive.

  • Brooke Roberts-Islam delves into the latest The State of Fashion Report and finds that sustainability is no longer an industry priority (*insert pretends to be shocked meme here*).

  • With sexual assault allegations stacking up against designer Alexander Wang, HIGHSNOBIETY asks why fashion is still ignoring its #MeToo movement.

  • When it’s easy to forget who made our clothes, John Sudworth’s long read on China’s “tainted” cotton really puts this wilful ignorance into perspective.

  • I can’t stop thinking about this Depop seller who transformed a train social distancing seat cover into a crop top. I mean it’s certainly on trend, pandemic and all.

  • Fashion Revolution’s Orsola de Castro talks about her new book Loved Clothes Last.

  • If like me, you’ve been swooooning over Beth Harmon’s wardrobe, you’d enjoy this piece by Lauren Bravo on why 2020 was the year TV became our catwalk.

  • “33 Stylish Essentials Everyone Should Own in 2021” - can we please make headlines like this a thing of the past. One day, I’ll finally get round to writing a deep dive on the holy trinity of greenwashing: brands, influencers and fashion media.

  • Ruth MacGilp explores how more frugal washing cycles could accelerate climate action.

  • If you’ve pledged to embrace your old clothes this year, you might want to enter sustainable stylist extraordinaire Alice Cruickshank’s Instagram giveaway where you could be the lucky winner of her wardrobe refresh service.

  • And if anyone has set themselves the new year resolution of giving up fast fashion for good, my DMs are always open for advice and recommendations!

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing describes the all too common practice of businesses pretending to be more environmentally friendly than they actually are. Offending brands spend millions in marketing dollars to capture the conscious consumer’s attention, rather than investing in genuine sustainable initiatives. They treat sustainability like it’s a commercial bonus, not something inherent to a brand’s integrity or, you know, their moral duty.

When you peel back these layers of khaki paint, you’ll often find a thinly camouflaged history of exploitative supply chains, polluted landscapes and an endless mileage of stock that makes its way to landfill. Greenwashing is essentially fashion marketing that’s tinged green in a horrible shade of deception and bullshit. It’s performative and merely designed to put profit before the planet.

A really useful way of conceptualising this practice is through “the seven sins of greenwashing”. TerraChoice developed this framework to help consumers identify products that made misleading environmental claims. The seven sins are:

  1. Sin of the hidden trade-off - emphasising one environmental benefit and ignoring the disadvantages. H&M, for example, recently stopped marketing BCI cotton as “sustainable” because, while organic cotton is preferable, it is still a thirsty crop and not without its own problems. ASOS should take note.

  2. Sin of no proof - brands making unsubstantiated claims without scientific evidence or third-party certification.

  3. Sin of vagueness - the use of wishy washy language which is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. Some naturally occurring chemicals, for example, are poisonous so natural doesn’t always equal good.

  4. Sin of worshipping false labels - labels that give the false impression of third-party endorsement.

  5. Sin of irrelevance - making irrelevant albeit true environmental claims, such as highlighting the avoidance of a material that is already forbidden by law.

  6. Sin of lesser of two evils - Making a claim that may be true of the individual product, but not the product category as a whole. This looks like emphasising that you make a dress derived from pineapple leather, forgetting it’s one garment among millions that you produce every year (*cough H&M cough*).

  7. Sin of fibbing - just outright lying, like claiming to be the most transparent brand in the world lol (can you tell who my favourite greenwasher is yet?)

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to share it. Or you could very kindly gift me a virtual cuppa - it really makes my day and helps keep this newsletter running!

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