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Sustainability is the biggest buzzword in the industry, outliving the expected lifetime of a trend to become part of the fabric of fashion’s future. However, with so many companies using sustainability as a form of marketing, greenwashing is on the rise, as companies give a false impression of how environmentally or ethically sound their products are. A term coined in the 80s by Jay Westerveld, greenwashing claims are akin to the old advertising claims that smoking is actually good for you, with little to no scientific backing, just a desperate need to be seen as environmentally responsible. Still, legislation is changing for the better, as consumers make more informed decisions which are possible in the Internet age.

Watchdog associations have been quick to point out unsubstantiated claims, particularly regarding market leaders like H&M who have come under fire for offering a ‘Conscious Collection’ with only vague claims as to why they are a better buy. The Norwegian Consumer Authority (NCA) has placed H&M in the crosshairs as they investigate the facts behind this environmentally friendly and low-price collection. The directory general of the NCA specified that these claims are “misleading – not false”, but H&M is rightfully being questioned for their commitment to a promise which is not specified. Now, following increasing pressure to disclose their backing for their claims, H&M has topped the 2020 Fashion Transparency Index. Though this index judges on how transparent a company is, not how sustainable it is, it is a demonstration of how consumer pressure can effect change.

From sweeping statements like “sustainably sourced” to misleading figures like “76% less CO2emissions” without specifying the standard to which they were comparing, clothing brands overuse words without sources in various ways. The difficulty lies in the vague term ‘sustainability’ itself, as it encompasses ethical workers rights and environmental sustainability, which are not mutually exclusive. PR campaigns work with this in mind, as Boohoo demonstrated by banning wool in their clothes (which they didn’t use anyway) but continuing to pay their UK workers £3 an hour.

False dichotomies have also found their way into advertising campaigns; lack of specification on sustainability has led to consumers being tricked into thinking a company either is sustainable and thus okay to buy, or isn’t. Any effort towards a fairer future gives companies the right to a very vague word which carries a lot of weight.

Fortunately, watchdog associations have been working to clear up misconceptions. National agencies, like the Advertising Standards Authority, ensure that blatant lies are not being told and that claims have at least some substantiation. The aforementioned Fashion Transparency Index is a good place to start, along with Fair Wear Foundation, Clean Clothes Campaign and Good On You. These associations take the hard work out of buying jeans, providing clear information on how transparent and sustainable high street clothing companies are.

Mounting pressure from these foundations has encouraged new legislation to be pushed through. The EU Commission is working on requesting or mandating fashion brands to label their products with their CO2, water and waste footprint; the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the Global Fashion Agenda and the Federation of the European Sporting Goods Industry joined together in 2019 to influence change in this sphere; the US has anti-greenwashing policy in place, although seldom enforced.

The growth in small sustainable clothing companies is telling of the important place sustainability holds in the current fashion industry, but upon closer inspection much of it can be attributed to smoke-and-mirrors. Still, the appetite for ethically and environmentally conscious clothing is showing no sign of stopping, so it is likely that the pillars of fast fashion will have to look at moving with the times or be left in the dust.

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