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Greenwashing in fast fashion

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We no longer have a choice. Either we become more eco-friendly, or pay the price. This is especially true when it comes to some of the environmental policies currently in effect, for example the 5p carrier bag charge in shops. As initially controversial laws like this grow to be accepted and even welcomed, it’s clear that greener living is progressively becoming a celebrated way of life.

 ‘Veganuary’, the age of the house plant, and the rise of vintage shops are all symptomatic of the sustainable movement that’s sweeping the nation and saving the planet at the same time – right now, sustainability sells.  It’s no surprise then, that the fast fashion giants are putting huge emphasis and capital into their greener marketing campaigns.

Defined by their ability to produce inexpensive clothing for the masses quickly and notorious for encouraging ‘throwaway culture’ (the idea that items are produced, bought and then discarded in a short frame of time), the industry is infamously culpable when it comes to crimes against the environment.

In recent years, many high-street chains such as H&M have tried to turn this perception on its head. Launching eco-friendly lines using recycled materials, the company has claimed to re-align its priorities in the interest of the earth and of its workers.

This is all well and good, provided their actions match their words. ‘Greenwashing’ is when a company suggests it’s doing more for the environment than it actually is. This isn’t to say they’re lying about their efforts to be more sustainable. Simply, they’re exclusively talking about the good they do, and failing to admit the areas where they need to improve.

Why is this so important?  Some effort is better than none, you might think. And whilst that may be true, the damaging effects of greenwashing can be so severe that they undermine the good done.

While any company can be guilty of greenwashing, fast fashion giants are a prime suspect in abusing the fight for the environment. This is often because they reduce it to nothing more than the next big trend, distilling the term to fit their branding and in doing so, compromising the integrity of their efforts.

H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’ is demonstrative of exactly that. It features clothes made with recycled plastics, organic cotton and Piñatex, a material made from food wastage such as orange peelings and pineapple leaves.  

While on the surface this might seem refreshingly novel, the numbers tell a different story. It takes about 480 pineapple leaves to make just one square metre of Piñatex. Only very long, fibrous leaves can be used, ultimately resulting in a lot being discarded. Piñatex also contains plastic and petroleum-based agents, meaning the material isn’t biodegradable.

None of this, of course, is mentioned in the adverts.

Even if clothes could be made using materials that are 100% environmentally friendly, the physical product itself is only one rung on a long ladder. Something is only ‘sustainable’ if this term can be applied holistically, meaning environmental, social, cultural and economic factors are all treated with equal importance.

Sustainability, therefore, is not synonymous with being eco-friendly or vegan. These things are important, but they’re only half of the battle.

The very nature of fast fashion relies on the ability to produce and sell items very quickly. Often, this means that companies require cheap labour to keep up with demand. H&M has been associated with several scandals of this kind in recent years.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013 resulted in more than 1000 people working in a factory killed. H&M was one of the brands manufacturing there. In 2018, factories that supply to H&M were named in reports by Global Labour Justice detailing abuse of female garment workers. It was also pointed out that the brand did not deliver on its 2013 promise to pay 850,000 workers a living wage by 2018.

If environmental sustainability is achieved at the expense of social or economic sustainability, then it hasn’t really fulfilled its duty. Clothes that are made using natural materials by workers who are underpaid and forced to endure dangerous conditions, are simply not acceptable. It’s time to stop being complicit in crimes against both nature and humanity, and take responsibility for the world we are building.

Luckily, there are many resources out there which can help you avoid being complicit in greenwashing. There is hope that in the future, the world of retail will approach sustainability with only pure intentions.

In the meantime, it’s prudent to approach sustainability claims with caution, especially when coming from companies that do not have a green history. Good On You is a great website for researching a company before you buy, as well as offering suggestions and tips on how to adopt eco-friendly habits in everyday life.

Ultimately, recognising that sustainability is not just a trend, but an all-encompassing lifestyle, is the most important step both individuals and companies can take in the fight for a better future.

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