‘Vegan,’ ‘sustainable’: How to spot greenwashing in fashion

‘Vegan,’ ‘sustainable’: How to spot greenwashing in fashion

(Video: Washington Post illustration; Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post; iStock)


“Eco-friendly.” “Vegan.” “Organic.” “Ethical.” “Sustainable.”

These clothing labels have become ubiquitous as consumers continue to grow more concerned about the industry’s significant environmental, climate and social impacts, prompting many brands to rush to signal that they too care about the planet and its people.

But the virtuous proclamations and campaigns can often amount to greenwashing — environmental marketing with little or no substance to back up claims — or in some cases, “clearwashing,” where the information doesn’t tell consumers much. In those instances, they tend to serve more as a marketing tool than as a way for shoppers to determine that what they’re buying is actually better for the environment and garment workers.

“Greenwashing is kind of a mix of the absence of meaningful information, but it’s also the tweaking and wordsmithing of things in a way that sounds awesome, but there’s no evidence that’s been supplied,” says Cosette Joyner Martinez, an associate professor in the department of design, housing and merchandising at Oklahoma State University. “Clearwashing is like ‘We’re going to provide you the appearance of rich information that ultimately is not meaningful.’ Giving me a street address of a supplier in China doesn’t tell me anything about what goes on there.”

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Left to muddle through incomplete or inaccurate information, experts say, many shoppers struggle to make sense of it all. “Customers are informed mostly by company marketing, and that’s where the confusion comes in,” says Lynda Grose, a professor of fashion design and critical studies at California College of the Arts. “All companies … always present their best face, and they’re very selective about what they choose to be transparent about and what they choose not to be transparent about. That creates a lot of confusion with the public.”

And it is often difficult to assess whether a brand is exaggerating their claims on purpose or by mistake, says Roland Geyer, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.

“Sometimes it’s hard to decide whether a company or people within an organization are actively misleading or whether they actually are true believers and are just sort of barking up the wrong tree, or just want believe that that’s the way they really can make a difference,” Geyer says.

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But developing a discerning eye and taking time to research can help you get a better idea of what’s true — and what’s not — in the fashion world. Here are some common forms of greenwashing to look out for, as well as tips from experts on how to vet brands and their claims.

Retailers that describe themselves or their products using environmental or socially conscious buzzwords, such as “sustainable,” without providing additional evidence or explanation should raise red flags.

“There really is no industry agreed-upon or legal definition of sustainability,” says Katrina Caspelich, chief marketing officer for Remake, a global nonprofit organization advocating for fair pay and climate justice in the clothing industry. “As a result, brands are really defining sustainability based on their own interpretations in order to justify salary, growth and profit.”

A company could make improvements to only one aspect of its resource-intensive and emissions-heavy supply chain, such as decreasing the amount of water needed to make its clothes, and call those garments “sustainable,” experts say.

In reality, though, sustainability is much more complex. Cotton, for instance, is widely considered to be more sustainable than polyester, a synthetic fiber that is commonly made from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource, and linked to high carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. But cotton’s sustainability depends on various factors, such as how it was grown and processed, or whether polluting or harmful chemicals were used to treat the fibers, Joyner Martinez says. Oftentimes, she notes, “none of that information will be disclosed so that the sustainable [claim] is never really substantiated.”

Certifications and efforts to support more sustainable practices can signal that a company isn’t all talk, experts say. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or the Organic Content Standard (OCS), for example, are two established organic certifications for clothes. Some brands also participate in organizations such as the Better Cotton Initiative, a nonprofit focused on cotton sustainability.

A garment’s overall sustainability should also be determined by how it’s used, particularly how long it can be kept out of a landfill, Joyner Martinez says: “When we talk about sustainable consumption of clothing, the brass ring is garment longevity.”

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It’s common for brands to promote campaigns or changes to their operations that appeal to conscious consumers. But the way companies typically advertise these efforts “gives the impression that their entire processes are like that,” when in reality it’s usually just “one little part” of the operation, says Karen Leonas, a professor of textile sciences at the Wilson College of Textiles at North Carolina State University.

Launching a single line or collection of clothes made by garment workers who are paid living wages or that use less-resource-intensive production methods is a good step to take, but it’s not enough, experts say.

“That can’t be the only gauge of sustainability of your company,” says Alice Roberta Taylor, chief of staff of the nonprofit Global Fashion Agenda. “By just doing that one range doesn’t mean the company is sustainable.”

Instead, it’s important to evaluate the net gains of a company or industry, Grose says: Are brands as a whole reducing carbon emissions and water use as well as paying living wages?

“There is waste built into the current system and reducing impacts on a small percentage of that doesn’t move the needle,” she says.

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‘Vegan,’ ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ materials

Experts also caution against taking certain materials at face value just because they’re associated with sustainability-signaling language. Vegan leather, for example, is “one of the most greenwashed claims,” says Sonali Diddi, an associate professor in the department of design and merchandising at Colorado State University who researches sustainable clothing production and consumption.

While vegan leather has become a popular alternative to traditional leather, the name is a rebranding of “pleather,” or plastic leather, a synthetic, fossil-fuel-based material. These faux leathers are largely made of polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride, also known as PVC — both of which are types of plastic. (Some companies are working on plant-based alternatives, but those products are not widely available yet.)

“From a sustainability point of view, definitely vegan leather is not sustainable whatsoever,” Diddi says.

But by describing the material as “vegan” — which is technically accurate, since it doesn’t contain any animal products — consumers might think they are purchasing clothing that is environmentally friendly. “It’s playing on people’s emotions and their values to get them to buy something that may not be great,” Joyner Martinez says.

And keep in mind that materials labeled as “natural” or “organic” aren’t always more sustainable.

“Yes, bamboo is natural,” Diddi says. “People, the moment they hear bamboo, they’re like, ‘Okay, I’m being a good consumer buying bamboo products.’ However, bamboo is also known to have one of the worst manufacturing practices,” which often requires large amounts of water and chemical processing.

Some research has also shown that organic cotton produces less yield than conventional cotton despite using the same amount of resources, Diddi says. “Just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s the best,she says.

And while the material might be organic, she adds, the company could be using cheap labor to make the clothes.

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How to look past greenwashing

Once you have an idea of what might be greenwashing, experts say the next step is knowing how to evaluate brands and their claims.

“We have to do the homework,” says Mark Sumner, a lecturer who focuses on sustainability within the textile, clothing and fashion industry at the University of Leeds School of Design. “The homework is really about trying to understand which brands are you wanting to buy from and why, and then thinking about what do those brands actually do?”

Examine a brand’s website. See if brands are talking about sustainability in an open and detailed way that is easy to understand. For example, are they sharing specifics about how they source materials, how they’re managing issues in their supply chain and whether they’re part of voluntary agreements intended to improve their practices? “If they’re not saying any of those things, the simple rule of thumb is you’ll assume they’re not doing anything,” Sumner says.

Caspelich also suggests scrutinizing the images that brands are using alongside their sustainability claims. Generic nature photos or stock pictures should be red flags.

Look for evidence of action. If you want to be more certain that a brand isn’t just talk, Sumner recommends looking for sustainability reports — particularly those that are audited or assessed by a third party.

Independent assessments of brands can be another helpful resource. A 2021 accountability report from Remake scores dozens of fashion companies across key issues such as environmental justice and climate change, wages and well-being, and raw materials, among others. Other resources that rank and score brands include Good On You, a website and app, as well as annual reports such as the Ethical Fashion Guide from Baptist World Aid, an Australia-based Christian charity organization, and Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index.

Check certifications. You also probably can be more confident in a brand or product if it has credible third-party certifications, experts say. Aside from GOTS and OCS, other labels to look for include Fairtrade, Oeko-Tex or Bluesign.

The Ecolabel Index, a global directory of labels, can be a helpful research tool to better understand what different certifications mean.

Ask questions and trust your gut. When in doubt, you should contact the brand with questions, Caspelich says. Otherwise, she and other experts suggest relying on your instincts.

“If it sounds too good to be true or if it’s a very encompassing statement, then it very likely is greenwashing,” Leonas says.

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