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The Problem of Greenwashing – And how to identify it

Circular Fashion, sustainably-produced, organic, ethical, vegan… these and many other buzz-words spread throughout the fashion industry in the last years to emphasize the responsibility of fashion brands. 

So, what would you expect from a conventional fashion brand following a fast fashion business model until then?

You would hope that these brands would restructure their business model to become more sustainable. Unfortunately, many of them rather invest more into PR-campaigns that make them appear more sustainable, while continuing business-as-usual. This is deceptive for consumers, and harmful for our planet and textile workers.

The term "Greenwashing" refers to all these allegedly sustainability initiatives, that are in contrast to the actual business practices of a company.

Of course, it can be positive if a big brand decides to put sustainability on their agenda, since it can raise awareness on important issues. Though, it is a problem if companies do it only to lure customers into buying more of their products without bringing lasting change.

This is why it is even more important for retailers and consumers alike to check what is behind a label.


Is it for real or just empty words…? How to identify greenwashing

Identifying greenwashing can be tricky and time-consuming. A rule of thumb would be to check whether a brand promotes sustainable and ethical production as an “add-on” or whether these values are at the core of their business.

  • It helps to look at hard facts instead of vague descriptions and nice words. For example, you can check the percentage of recycled material used for a product (is it 100% or less?) and whether the sustainability criteria covers only one aspect of production, such as the material, or the entire production chain from raw material to manufacturing. Sometimes, brands even advertise with green packaging such as recycled paper tags while the product itself does not fulfill any environmental and social production criteria. Hence, a close look is needed!
  • Look at what brands are already doing, instead of what they promise for the future. Often, brands run sustainability campaigns on their targets for the future, such as becoming fully circular by 2030 – while lacking a clear roadmap on how they will achieve their ambitious objectives as well as lacking documentation on changes they have already implemented. Ambitious targets are great, but it is actions that matter.
  • Check whether brands only focus on environmental aspects such as water-saving production methods and reducing toxic chemicals used in dyeing processes or whether they include social aspects such as decent working conditions and living wages for textile workers. A truly sustainable brand focuses on environmental and social factors and provides facts and figures that prove their commitment.
  • Moreover, brands with a sincere commitment to tackling the problems caused by the fashion industry have to keep the whole life cycle of the product in mind, including post-consumer recycling. On average, every EU citizen produces 11kg of textile waste per year which mostly ends up in landfills or gets incinerated. Hence, truly sustainable business models have to tackle problems on over-consumption and over-production as well. To reduce over-consumption, slow fashion brands focus on timeless designs and products that are made to last, so pieces don’t get thrown out after one season. Other brands offer repairs and include pre-loved pieces into their collections. For example, Nudie Jeans offers a life-long free repair service and has a take-back program for all their jeans to keep them in a circular loop. 

The importance of independent certifications and reports

In general, relying on independent certifications such as Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Fairtrade Textile Standard and Organic Content Standard 100 (OCS 100) is crucial. It is generally a lot more trustworthy if a company gets audited by an external organization rather than relying on their own controls. You can also check whether a brand is a member of the Fair Wear Foundation or look for reports by civil society organizations for fair working conditions.

For example, the Clean Clothes Campaign established the Fashion Checker to inform consumers about labour rights violations and the specific brands that were/are involved. They found that 93 % of all brands are not paying a living wage – which means that they do not pay textile workers enough to cover for their basic needs. Another very helpful tool is "Good on You", an app that rates fashion brands for their ethical and sustainable practices. Behind the app, a group of fashion professionals, scientists, developers and campaigners analyse brands from around the world and give them an easy-to-understand score. They rank fast-fashion brands such as ZARA and Jack & Jones as well as sustainability pioneers such as VEJA and Kings of Indigo.

Making your choice easier: Our responsibility as a retailer

As a retailer focusing on sustainable and ethical fashion, we see it as our responsibility to carefully select the brands we work with, and thoroughly research and question their environmental and social impact. Again, this is not always easy and raises difficult questions on what to prioritize: Made in Portugal or Fairtrade from India? Organic cotton or recycled fibers? 

It is tricky to make informed decisions, and here at Res-Res we see it as our responsibility to help you make the best choices for yourself, the planet and the makers behind the products.

- written by Lea Kress

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