Greenwashing Fashion

As soon as being ecologically responsible became trendy, greenwashing—the practice of making something appear environmentally-friendly when it really wasn’t, or wasn’t offering the benefits advertised—followed right behind. In a classic example of how capitalism manages to appropriate social movements, environmental consciousness was turned into a consumer practice, one in which you had to buy more things to show off how concerned you were for the environment, and one in which class signaling became available for people interested in flashing their ‘green’ credentials without actually having to give up their way of life.

One area of the economy with serious environmental issues is the fashion industry. We live in an era of cheap, disposable fashion, which encourages people to buy things, wear them a few times, and then throw them away or donate them, often in a bedraggled state because the fabrics aren’t designed to last. Fashion changes so rapidly that to stay on trend, people always need to be buying more, and naturally there’s only so far people are willing to go for the environment; if it comes down to looking out-of-date at a party or wearing a perfectly serviceable last-season dress, there’s really only one choice for the fashionable.

And that’s just on the end-consumer way of things. There’s tremendous waste across the textile industry, compounded by pollution associated with processing, dying, and preparing textiles. To boot, one must consider the abuse of workers in the industry, most of whom are not making living wages, and many of whom live and work in exploitative conditions. Child labour and slavery are both problems in fashion which, while not always directly connected to the environment, should be matters of concern for people worried about social justice overall, and the costs of living in a world where the filth of the west is exported to the Global South.

Some fashion retailers, thus, have started preparing ‘green’ fashion campaigns in an attempt to present themselves as more forward than their competitors. On the surface, this would seem like a good thing; by doing so, such companies pressure the entire industry to clean up, which could potentially generate a sea change in fashion, the industry, and the way people relate to the environment. Such changes have been seen with animal welfare reform in the fast food industry, for example, and with improvements to working conditions in the same industry thanks to lobbying from groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

But something more sinister is at work here. In any discussion of environmental responsibility, one must look to who benefits, and how, and one must examine the deeper roots of the programme under discussion. Is it a genuine attempt to address a specific environmental issue? Or is greenwashing intended to give the company great public relations and attract consumers that doesn’t actually offer much to the environment? Without transparency and the ability to delve into the specifics of such programmes, it can be hard to tell.

Veronica at xoJane recently covered H&M’s recycling campaign, and she highlighted some of these very issues in her discussion of corporate greenwashing. H&M is offering people a discount if they donate clothing to stores, effectively encouraging them to return their fast fashion to the source so they can buy more fast fashion at a reduced price. As Veronica pointed out, given that H&M had recently been caught shredding unsold merchandise, the company needed to rehab its image, and this was a great way to do it: look charitable, show that it’s contrite, highlight environmental consciousness…and, of course, retain its customer base and potentially attract even more potential customers who prefer to shop at ecologically responsible retailers.

First question:

What will happen to the collected clothing? Right now, a Swiss company buys the used garments and either re-sells them or recycles them into items like cleaning cloths or toys.

Okay, that’s a not unreasonable use of used clothing. But is there a large enough market for the used clothing to make this sustainable in the long-term? What about artificial fibers? Buttons, zippers, and other components? How much wasteage, in other words, is occurring between the point of donation and the turnover to new consumers? It may turn out to be a lot, since textile recycling can be very inefficient. And how many resources are being used to recycle the clothing in the first place, including those needed for transportation, processing, and distribution of new products derived from the old clothes?

And, Veronica notes, there’s a more fundamental problem here. In addition to following the money and asking probing questions about what actually happens with this feel-good campaign, it’s important to question not just the campaign itself, but the originator.

It’s almost impossible for fast-fashion and sustainability to exist under the same roof: One thrives on the rapid mass-production of trendy clothes, using cheap materials and even cheaper labor to ensure prices that customers won’t complain about; the other focuses on creating garments that will last a lifetime, from sustainable yet pricey raw materials, and, in the best case scenario, using labor that is fairly paid and production processes with limited impact on the environment.

Should H&M and companies like it exist at all? Under the metric of free-market capitalism, they should, because they provide a service that people want. But if people are genuinely concerned about sustainability and the garment industry, they should be questioning disposable fashion, and steering clear of companies like H&M. However, that has to be weighed against significant class issues and the fact that sustainable products can be expensive; try outfitting yourself for a few job using clothes from entirely sustainable sources. It can be tough to come up with a professional wardrobe on a tight budget, which is why a lot of people find themselves turning to these companies even though they may not want to.

These are questions that need to be pondered carefully, because pushing consumers towards sustainable fashion is a complex issue that can’t be solved by just telling everyone to buy the ‘right’ thing.