As consumers become increasingly aware of the fashion industry’s impact on our planet and its inhabitants, many are making an effort to spend their money more consciously by putting their purchase power behind eco-conscious and socially responsible brands. With this shift in purchase preferences, you can bet some companies have been tempted to put a spin on their products, practices and policies as environmentally friendly when in reality, they are anything but.

IE Studio for I and ME

Greenwashing is a marketing tactic that has been on the rise within the fashion industry, making it even more difficult for consumers to decipher the true meaning behind trendy buzzwords such as eco-friendly, natural and sustainable. These terms have been popping up on the labels of almost everything we consume these days, be it food, clothing or cleaning products. Whether you’re new to the ethical and sustainable fashion movement or a seasoned pro it can be extremely confusing to navigate your way through the rose-tinted web of marketing campaigns, brand ambassadors, eco-centric initiatives, and sociocultural collabs that have entangled our industry as brands fight for their piece of the conscious clothing pie. 

It may not always be glaringly obvious when a brand is greenwashing but there are some telltale signs, and even better, there are brands whose ethos is paving the way with clear, open and honest communication.

So how can you tell if a brand is greenwashing? Here we’ve picked some key sustainable terms  to question when making responsible purchases, and listed our picks of the truly green-hearted brands who are making sustainable look easy.

1. Vague Sustainable Initiatives vs. Detailed Certifications 

In 1987 the UN defined sustainability as ‚Äėdevelopment that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs‚Äô. This vague unquantifiable definition unfortunately gives brands a lot of wiggle room when making sustainability claims. Impressive sounding corporate initiatives to off-set carbon emissions such as solar paneling and green walls at the head office sounds lovely, but if a company fails to mention its factories, workers, production practices: red flag, giant red flag. Certifications involving its supply chain should be the first thing a brand mentions when addressing their environmental impact as production accounts for 70% of the fashion industry’s overall carbon footprint, which makes up 10% of all humanities carbon emissions. Certifications are a complex and nuanced world, however non-profit organizations are providing a form of proof behind lofty claims.¬†

I and ME
IE Studio for I and ME

2. Carbon Neutral vs. Climate Neutral 

Carbon Neutrality is another buzz term making its way into our daily lives that can be widely misinterpreted. Despite the perceived positivity behind the word neutral, carbon neutrality is a term used to describe a company’s actions when carbon emissions caused by the company itself are balanced out by funding an equivalent amount of carbon savings elsewhere. Usually achieved by funding climate-beneficial projects to offset the carbon they emit, and often only applied when carbon emissions exceed certain levels, with no plan to move towards clean energy or reduce emissions overall. Lack of consistent global regulation is a major loophole in carbon related greenwashed marketing.¬†

Climate Neutrality, on the other hand, extends to achieving zero net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, including emissions beyond carbon dioxide. While neutralizing all of your carbon emissions and maintaining progress towards a zero carbon future, which describes a point in time where humanity no longer contributes to the burden of climate heating gases in the atmosphere. Climate neutrality is also certifiable by the Climate Neutral Certified Standard.

Traceability relies on transparency, so if a brand is trying to sell you organic cotton jeans but can't tell you where that cotton was flag! 

3. Transparency and Traceability 

Often mistakenly used as interchangeable terms transparency and traceability are different concepts and understanding their relationship is key to deciphering whether a brand is actually mapping their supply chain or just mapping out their next marketing campaign. We all remember the great ‚Äúradical transparency‚ÄĚ debacle of 2020 right? Transparency refers to mapping the entire supply chain on every level. Through transparency one can identify the all suppliers for all the components in a product, down to the source, as well as specific information related to these suppliers, such as certifications, whether they are meeting regulatory standards and paying living wages to their workers.

Traceability is designed to capture more granular information about a product’s ingredients to verify quality, origin, composition and other information gained through transparent supply chain mapping. Traceability relies on transparency, so if a brand is trying to sell you organic cotton jeans but can’t tell you where that cotton was farmed…red flag!¬† Be weary of campaigns featuring all good news when it comes to traceability, the apparel industry is a messy one and even the best intentioned brands will struggle to make the perfect product. True transparency is sometimes about admitting to your faults.

Reformation, Fibre Trace

4. Ethos Based Mission Statement Without Accompanying Action 

As consumers’ awareness behind who makes their clothes, and how they are treated grows, we hear more and more brands preach ‚Äėpeople and planet over profit‚Äô, unfortunately we know that the reality of that statement often falls short. Key factors to look out for are wage rates and fair trade certification.

Many countries have a ‚Äėminimum wage‚Äô, the lowest legal wage a company can pay its workers. This is very different from a ‚Äėliving wage‚Äė, the minimum wage a garment worker should earn to feed themselves and their families, pay rent, and cover healthcare, transportation, and education. Companies shouting about ensuring minimum wage, are doing the very least.

When hearing a brand talk about labor standards and a living wage, remember that these are hard factors to regulate, especially in large production facilities located outside of the brand’s home country, workers can be exploited, overlooked and endangered. This is why full supply chain transparency is imperative. Ethical brands are able to and should list the names and locations of all factories involved in the production of their products. Better yet, brands that are Fair Trade Certified ensure that workers are getting a fair deal and a living wage.

Suay Sew Shop in Los Angeles, is paving the way for a more ethical and sustainable fashion future, by disrupting traditional production methods and exemplifying what it means to be a socially responsible and environmentally sustainable brand. ‚ÄúFounded on the vanguard ethos of true progressive circularity, ‘Know your grower, know your sew-er‘, Suay has continued to support garment workers’ rights and policy reform for fair wages, highlighting the numerous systemic injustices within the fashion industry.‚Ä̬†

It's easy enough to sell an organic cotton shirt, but brands should be able to point to water waste and usage percentages, whether or not harmful dyes were used, and clarify labor standards and working conditions. Just because it's organic doesn't make it green.

Suay Sew Shop Los Angeles
Suay Sew Shop Los Angeles

5. The Circular Economy 

The concept of circular economies or ‚Äúcircularity‚ÄĚ has been advocated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation since its founding in 2010 and is ‚Äúbased on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems‚ÄĚ.¬† The basic principles of circularity include internationally made purchases, investing in the longevity and total lifecycle of the garment. Circularity can be presented in many forms from recycled and regenerative fibers to biodegradable components and purposeful product design that makes it easier to recycle a garments materials. Cradle to Cradle and GOTS Certifications are a few of the best ways to tell that a brand is not only investing in a circular future but physically making it happen.

Riding on the back of the current circular economy hype, many companies are releasing eco-friendly ranges, recycled or upcycled capsule collections, be weary of short term, small sustainable initiatives from large companies without a diverse range of products. Unless a brand has set clear targets to increase its ‚Äúsustainable‚ÄĚ ranges to more than 50% of products or working towards making the entire business ethical, it’s probably greenwashing. It’s easy enough to sell an organic cotton shirt, but brands should be able to point to water waste and usage percentages, whether or not harmful dyes were used, and clarify labor standards and working conditions. Just because it’s organic doesn’t make it green.

Greg Lauren FW21
Boyish Jeans

But it’s not all bad news! Increasing consumer awareness and dedicated sustainable and ethical brands committed to providing full disclosure on who, how and where clothing is coming from, no greenwashing necessary, goes to show that caring about our planet and its people first, is the way forward.¬†

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