So you’re keen to shop more sustainably and ethically; great news! But you’re understandably overwhelmed, which is not so great. There are tonnes of sustainable fashion brands out there, but with new labels launching all the time, and existing high street names introducing new initiatives which claim to be eco-friendly, how can you begin to know whether your shopping is supporting companies that do good for the planet and their employees?
While many brands are truly dedicated to being more sustainable and ethical, there are some who take advantage of the movement without putting their money where their mouth is - otherwise known as 'greenwashing'. Here’s what you need to know, and how to spot businesses that are (or aren't) delivering on their promises:
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is a term first coined in the 1980s to describe companies making environmental claims in a bid to jump on the bandwagon. It can also be applied to ethical fashion, although generally refers to 'sustainable' labels.
Often brands make claims to show that they're "doing their part" - these might be true, but switching *some*materials to organic cotton, while still flying goods around the world (and not offsetting carbon emissions), making clothes that aren't built to last and not paying all workers a fair wage means these claims are seen as the fashion equivalent of gaslighting.
Why is it problematic?
Aside from the fact that you don't want to be duped into thinking your shopping is good for the planet when it's basically not, greenwashing can help brands increase their popularity - sometimes for the wrong reasons.
Clare Lissaman, Founder of ethical menswear label Arthur & Henry and Impact Director at Common Objective, tells Cosmopolitan: "Some may be deliberately trying to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes because they see a market opportunity, but others may just be enthusiastically and naively over-claiming or misrepresenting their positive environmental impact. Either way, the danger is that we stop trusting any messaging around sustainability.
"Part of the challenge with greenwashing is that as consumers we want to feel good not bad, so when a brand sells something to us using language or imagery that makes it appear as if it’s good for people and the planet, we love it. And often we don’t think to question more about what exactly it is they are doing to be able to make that claim."
How to spot a “real” sustainable brand
No-one wants to be tricked into buying from businesses that aren't necessarily practising what they preach, but with so many out there claiming to be working on different initiatives, how do you actually know what's real?
It comes down to a mixture of research and using online tools. "The change agency Futerra has a brilliant guide on how to spot signs of greenwashing, ranging from fluffy language (what exactly does "eco friendly" mean), to suggestive imagery, and more," says Clare.
"I’m a fan of certification schemes, even though they may not be perfect. Say two businesses are telling your their cotton is good for the planet and for farmers but one is certified. Then, the certification does two things: it gives a degree more reassurance that a company is indeed doing what they say they are doing (because someone else has checked) and means I can look up exactly what that means, what this scheme defines as good for planet and farmers.
"For example, Fairtrade cotton requires a minimum fair price to be paid, or organic means that certain chemicals can’t be used. But if a brand is just saying something is good, then either they should be sharing in detail exactly what that means in terms of chemicals used, pollution controls, price paid and so on, or I need to ask them all those questions."
Some examples of certifications to look out for when trying to shop more sustainably include: "Fairtrade, the Soil Association, GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard). All have rigorous criteria for both setting the standard and for awarding the certification."
Clare also suggests checking out the following:
- If a brand uses words like "ethical", "sustainable", or "eco-friendly" investigate or email to ask them what exactly they mean by that. Different businesses will have different interpretations.
- If a brand says something around workers having good working conditions - ask them what that means. Just because a label audits their suppliers against a Code of Conduct is not in itself any guarantee - and yet that is what many companies put forward as their evidence of being ethical.
- If a brand is claiming that they are ‘fair trade’ then ask if that means they are aligned with the FINE definition of ‘fair trade’, which embraces activism around how trade is conducted as well as just selling nice products. This promises to support producers, raise awareness and campaign for change. Find out more here.
And if you're still not sure? Follow eco-influencers on social media, read about brands' promises on their websites and email them asking questions. Knowledge is power.
Follow Abbi on Instagram.
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