Sustainable vs Ethical Clothing and Debunking Greenwashing Campaigns
Season 1 episode 4
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As consumers we are becoming more aware of the effects our shopping habits are having on the environment. We have seen a reduction in plastic in supermarkets with the introduction of BYO bag policies and labels that say “biodegradable.” Companies have seen what their customers want and this has led some to resort to strategic marketing tactics such as green washing. So is there a difference between an ethical product and a sustainable product? And what exactly is greenwashing?
Hello friends and welcome back to Seams Fabricated, I’m your host Lilli and on this podcast I expose the dirty laundry of the fast fashion industry and look at new approaches to old technology. Today’s episode will be focusing on ethical and sustainable clothing, and debunking the greenwashing campaigns of some brands.
Let’s begin with sustainability. It's the buzzword every company is trying to incorporate into new products and marketing campaigns. If you’re a little bit fuzzy on what a sustainable product is, let me explain. According to the Oxford dictionary sustainability is “avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.”
Our Earth is extremely good at recycling, in every aspect of the natural world we see seeds grow into new trees, plants recycle carbon into oxygen, the water cycle provides fresh water, and even the seasons play a role in the natural circle of life. Realistically the Earth can continue to provide us with materials, oxygen, water, food and everything we need for ever. But the way and speed humans are currently using these resources is beyond the Earth’s natural capacity. For example, we cut down about 15 billion trees per year, but only plant 1.9 billion leaving the planet at a deficit of about 13 billion trees every year. Meaning that if we continue chopping at this capacity, we will eventually run out of trees. Being sustainable would mean that we only take what is able to be replenished.
So in which ways is the fashion industry unsustainable? I won’t go into details because I could fill a whole episode on that alone, and let’s be honest I will, but to give you an idea here is a short list on how unsustainable the industry is
The use of harsh chemicals which make their way back into the eco system, harming local wildlife, water and food sources.
Uses extremely large amounts of fresh water.
10% of the worlds carbon emissions come from the fashion industry.
800,000 tonnes of clothing end up in landfill each year.
Synthetic fibres such as polyester are not biodegradable, and blended fibres are impossible to recycle.
Clothing is created to last one season rather than a lifetime. Changing trends and poor quality clothes leads consumers to buy and use more.
Workers are paid unevenly and unfairly. Those at the bottom of the chain barely make a living, leading to ill health, unstable work and poor living conditions, which no doubt contributes to more mistakes and wastage in the workplace.
In contrast there are so many new technologies and amazing brands taking on a whole new way of production. This is where I think it’s important to understand what steps companies are taking towards sustainability.
Using organically grown fibres such as cotton, linen and bamboo are more environmentally friendly and are increasing in popularity. Organic means that no harmful pesticides were sprayed on crops, saving local water supplies, soil and air from pollution and making it safer for farmers.
Using single fibre fabrics makes it possible to recycle. For example tags with 100% cotton or 100% polyester are able to be made into new fabrics if taken to the proper facilities at the end of their life span.
Using recycled fabrics means that clothing has been saved from landfill. Although the technology has a way to go in being more sustainable during the actual recycling process, it’s a step in the right direction.
Using more eco friendly dyes and techniques. For example ColorZen is using technology to pre-treat fibres before they are spun, reducing water and chemical usage by 90% during dying. Companies are also using lasers instead of chemicals to get a distressed look on denim.
Designing a garment to last using quality fabrics and timeless design.
Employing workers in all levels of production that have a healthy work environment and fair pay.
The use of biodegradable and recyclable packaging
Employing carbon neutral shipping companies
Now we have a clear idea of what a sustainable brand looks out for, lets discuss ethical clothing. Ethical manufacturing puts focus on the good health and safety of their workforce, and implements fair compensation.
I’m sure we are all familiar with the term “sweat shop.” But it seems like such a far away reality that it couldn’t possibly still exist in this day and age. Unfortunately, it is and human rights violations are prevalent. For example:
Child labour, 250 million children as young as 5 years old work in sweat shops.
Forced labour, people are often forced to work overtime with no breaks to reach unrealistic time frames.
Lack of safety standards on buildings and in the workplace, the factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1000 people is a prime example of this.
Not paid a living wage, workers often spend all their money on food to feed their family and have not much left for education, clothing, safe housing and retirement savings.
Women are forced to take contraception, have regular pregnancy tests, pressured to have abortions, and are refused maternity leave.
Environmental factors impact local communities by polluting waterways, contaminating local food and creating serious health issues.
Over 2 billion animals are killed for their skins and furs in the fashion industry.
These are just some of the ethical issues within the fashion industry. Thankfully many businesses are realising the personal impacts this work structure has on real people and families, and companies are making changes. Some of these changes include:
Sourcing materials from organic farms with strong ethical standards and no harmful chemical use.
Paying a fair wage at every level of production, including any outsourced work.
Frequently checking up on working conditions and safety standards and making changes where necessary.
Discarding of waste in a safe way.
Having and keeping high standards for fair work hours, health insurance and compensation.
Zero discrimination tolerance
Using no animal products
Ethics and sustainability really go hand in hand. It is ethical to be sustainable and sustainable to be ethical. They can’t truly exist without the other. When it comes to branding, companies tend to lean one way or the other. As new generations grow up in a world where climate change is a reality, we are more concerned about the planet than ever before, which has lead to new amazing businesses, technology and jobs. Supporting these types of businesses means your supporting a cleaner future. No business is perfect, perhaps a brand still has a high carbon emission or because of location cannot source specific items that may be more sustainable. But there are many that are worth supporting.
Because of this influx in environmental awareness, larger companies have realised that us as consumers prefer to buy sustainable and ethical where possible and have used marketing strategies to trick consumers into thinking their product is environmentally friendly. This is called greenwashing.
In fact nearly 60% of eco friendly claims by the fashion industry turned out to be false marketing. I’ve got some examples here, so strap in while I spill the.
H&M has been exposed as one of the worst companies for greenwashing, with recent studies finding that 90% of their claims were false. Their “conscious collection” claimed to use organic cotton and recycled fibres, when the actual contents of the garments were found to have more harmful synthetic materials than they’re regular clothing lines. Essentially their “eco friendly” line was less ecofriendly.
ASOS is another brand that made me say Yikes. They have been caught lying to their customers. Mono material, means one type of material which makes it possible to recycle. ASOS claimed to have made mono material jeans, but when the fabric composition was checked it was made from 54 percent nylon and 46 percent polyester. A blended fabric which we currently do not have the technology to recycle. Not only that but these synthetic fibres are among the most damaging to the environment.
Urban outfitters made me laugh out loud at the irony of their t shirts. They featured slogans saying “Protect our planet” and “save the wild” made from non-organic cotton, resulting in a multitude of pesticides sprayed onto crops to make that t shirt. Another shirt “There is no planet B” claims to be made from recycled cotton and polyester. Which is great but now that the fibres are blended this shirt cannot be recycled and is destined to landfill. They know we have no planet B so why are they still adding to planet A’s pollution?
It’s really disappointing as a consumer to be lied to. A clear issue is not just that brands are not making sustainable changes, but they are misleading consumers into believing they are. Transparency is key to keeping trust with customers. Many brands now have a page on their website called “transparency” where the information on where the product is made and what steps they’re taking can be found, at least the facts they’re willing to share.
How are brands allowed to do this? There are many principles but not many actionable laws that these brands need to adhere to. The UCPD have recently focused their attention to greenwashing on business websites and found that 42% were made false or deceptive claims on their environmental impact. Most of the time there are no consequences for greenwashing other than being caught in a lie and suffering the shame on social media. Some companies have been hit with class action and private lawsuits such as Volkswagen for false testing on their carbon emissions, and recently coca cola for branding themselves as “sustainable” while creating more plastic pollution than any other company. But as a whole this issue is very unregulated, and in most cases is considered a grey area.
As consumers it can be very daunting to choose which brands are the best to buy from. So what can we do to protect ourselves from misleading marketing?
Watch out for buzzwords like “all natural” “green” “chemical free” – these non specific labels are not regulated and can be used by anyone.
Check the website or label for more information to back up their claims.
Check out the brands transparency page, if brands are making good changes they will be eager to show customers. If you can’t find a transparency page it’s safe to assume they have nothing good to show.
Look for third party organisations that verify the brands claims.
Buy less. As consumers the very best thing we can do is buy less and buy quality.
It’s also important as consumers to speak up when we know something is not right. The power is in our hands, we can choose to support ethical and sustainable brands, and avoid greenwashing by not relying on marketing to sway our purchases but look at the facts. Over everything else, buy quality over quantity and don’t buy anything you don’t need.
That’s it from me today. Thanks so much for listening to this episode. As always a new episode will be up next Thursday.