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The Rise of Greenwashing in Modern Fashion

A greenwashing washing machine


‘As every business owner should know, we have a responsibility to market ourselves authentically, ethically and with transparency in our practices. At Clean Energy Capital, we pride ourselves on delivering earnest and honest facts about our business, our brand and our initiatives - never redirecting or obscuring the truth for our clients and any stakeholders associated with CEC.’

Alexander Goodall, Founder & CEO of Clean Energy Capital.


Popularised in the late 1980s by American environmentalist Jay Westerveld, the term ‘greenwashing’ has long been used to describe an overstatement or inflated perspective of something’s true sustainability. This could describe a sustainable product made from recycled plastic, for example, that actually requires more energy to dispose of than a standard product, or an individual who showcases their impressive eco-friendly recycling regime yet fails to actually separate their waste.

In 2023, ‘greenwashing’ is most commonly used when referring to companies who cite sustainable processes in their marketing campaigns, yet actually fail to achieve any real positive ecological impact. With sustainability rapidly becoming a key component of consumer behaviour, it’s natural that more and more businesses will be using this to their advantage - however, when their marketing efforts fail to align with their actual processes, it can become a significant problem.

How The Fashion Industry Is Linked to Greenwashing

As recorded by the Geneva Environment Network, the fashion production industry makes up 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, highlighting it as one of the most environmentally harmful industries active today. With clothing production lines becoming enormous drains on water sources and electricity, and the sheer scale of waste fabric and clothing contributing to polluted oceans and landfill sites, the industry has become a target for climate activists across the world.

With rising demands for change and improvement within the fashion production industry, many businesses and brands have begun highlighting the more ‘sustainable’ areas of their manufacturing lines - from releasing ‘eco-collections’ made from recycled plastics and materials to promoting upcycling and buying second-hand.

However, with just a small amount of research carried out, it’s easy to see past these green-themed campaigns and promotions. In recent years, many fast fashion brands have made a conscious effort to develop clothing lines from ‘organic cotton- a seemingly innocuous and sustainable material. Yet the production of cotton and the manufacturing of the clothing itself is likely to be a drain on natural water resources, with the addition of harmful dyes, chemicals and substances applied after the cotton is harvested.

However, this is not the only instance of greenwashing found throughout the fashion industry and in its marketing efforts and this week we take a deeper look at these issues:

1. Token Initiatives

A common tactic by greenwashing brands is to highlight a single, token area of positive sustainable change or initiative carried out by the brand and promote it through blanket marketing campaigns across social media, in-store advertising and TV ads. This could be an in-store recycling programme, for example, or a vegan line, ensuring cruelty-free production across their collections. This initiative will likely meet the standards of one of the company’s ESG targets and is designed to influence the consumer into believing the entire production line is equally eco-conscious. However, a singular initiative does not cancel out the serious environmental impact had by the existing processes carried out by the business as a whole - and is often offered up as a smokescreen for the hidden harmful practices continuing behind closed doors.

2. Geographic Influence

It’s widely recognised that the majority of clothes in high street retail stores are sourced from production factories across the world, predominantly in Asian countries where harmful environmental outputs are high and economic ethics are low. From Bangladesh to Vietnam, the use of sweatshops continues to be a major resource for modern fashion brands - however, through greenwashing attempts, their marketing will suggest influences from alternative, more ethical locations. Many brands will cite their inspiration, designs and pieces will come from Paris, Greece, Tuscany and Copenhagen, some of the most fashionable but also sustainable spaces in Europe. Through high level marketing and advertising, consumers are influenced to believe that these cities are where their clothes come from, rather than understanding the more realistic truth behind their wardrobes.

3. High Target Setting

Today it is fairly common for fast fashion brands to publicly set high green targets for themselves, without the means to actually achieve them. Some businesses might share their targets to be carbon neutral by 2030, without actually planning to make the changes required to meet that goal. Others might promise to plant a certain number of trees in an attempt at reforestation, without planning for the resources required to do so. From a business perspective, it’s often more important that consumers recognise their attempts at sustainability than it is to fulfil the target. With their shoppers and users unlikely to check or follow up as well, this green target can remain a popular marketing tool for years to come.

4. Unresearched Initiatives

Going green in the fashion industry is about more than just stocking up on cotton tote bags and setting up a clothing bank in a flagship store. It’s about making structured, informed changes across the board - in offices, production factories, design studios and of course, the stores themselves. Many fashion retailers however will opt to pursue drastic changes for their brands, without carrying out the necessary research first. In recent years, a popular online fashion brand decided to market and promote their new eco-friendly wool line, without researching the dangers and damaging effects of wool production first. Other brands have paired up with supposedly ethical suppliers, only to discover their unethical, unsustainable and often inhumane methods of production later down the line.

It is important to note that there are many businesses and brands working to achieve true sustainability and ethical production processes for their companies. However, currently the fashion industry as a whole is responsible for a lot of harmful greenwashing. From false advertising and forgotten promises to unresearched advocating and token initiatives, some of the biggest fashion retailers in the world have a lot to answer for when it comes to their sustainability efforts.

To find out more about improving the sustainability of your business, and its links to our services in Solar PV and Power Purchase Agreements, get in touch today.


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