Being Green Isn't Easy

The sad reality of sustainable fashion: ‘Exaggerated, false, or deceptive’

Brands are busy revealing sustainability initiatives, but it can be hard to tell which are actually legit. Now Instagram influencers are calling them out.

@thesustainablefashionforum post

Your favorite “sustainable” brand may be lying to you about its practices.

With sustainability seemingly becoming less of an actual goal and more of a marketing strategy for brands, consumers are left to grapple with major moral questions: Are the products they’re buying actually green? Or are they just painted that way?

Between cheap labor, clothing pollution, and fast fashion, the fashion industry is rife with sustainability issues that both companies and some consumers are willing to ignore. After 2020 brought increased activism and education, though, many customers are looking to shop more sustainably, while also supporting smaller brands and individuals through their shopping. Seemingly overnight, it became far harder for brands to hide behind empty slogans, pretty photos, or vague campaigns. Now, consumers want to see real action and tangible change, not marketing.

It’s become easy to rattle off a list of buzzwords popularized by the sustainability movement: “ethical,” “organic,” “conscious,” “transparent,” even “sustainability” itself. But such words have been falsely slapped on collections and production processes by brands looking to attract the new, more mindful consumer. Whether initiatives are actually what they say they are is increasingly hard to tell — and accountability seems to slip away as soon as an “ethically-made” label is branded onto clothes.

Social media, in particular, has given companies a window that lets them pretend to participate in issues facing the environment, rather than actually doing so — but fashion’s misinformation problem goes deeper than an Instagram infographic.

Painful Truth

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In proceeding with its annual screening of the marketing claims made on companies’ websites, this year with a special focus on “greenwashing,” the European Commission revealed that national consumer protection authorities had reason to believe that in 42 percent of cases of companies making “green” claims, the claims were “exaggerated, false, or deceptive.” Greenwashing is just this: falsely promoting sustainable claims to keep up with changing consumers, while still cheaply and harmfully producing clothes.

Last August, the Norwegian Consumer Authority called H&M out for greenwashing. H&M’s Conscious collection was made out of more sustainable materials like organic cotton, recycled polyester, and Tencel. The problem was that H&M didn’t explain how, exactly, these materials are better for the environment.

Sustainability, for me, is about being resourceful.”

Most recently, Uniqlo enlisted popular anime cat Doraemon as its Global Sustainability Ambassador. Other than turning green to activate “sustainability mode,” however, it’s unclear how exactly a cartoon cat will help the brand achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, a goal Uniqlo has previously set for itself. The fictional character also oversees the brand’s intention to go fully carbon-neutral throughout its entire supply chain — another goal which, again, Uniqlo did not elaborate on. And while consumers could choose to trust the global brand on its vague objectives, Uniqlo also hosts a past riddled with cases of garment worker abuse and unethical production process, making it difficult to know whether the brand will actually follow through on its newly set sustainability targets.

We can’t rely exclusively on citizens to police brands, nor can we buy our way to a better future. And while legislation is slowly moving towards more environmentally-friendly solutions, where are consumers to turn now?

Social Warriors

Amy Nguyen works as a sustainability strategist — but is more commonly known on Instagram as @sustainableandsocial, a blog dedicated to educating people about sustainability in fashion, beauty, business, and more. Since 2018, she’s turned research and scholarly articles into digestible Instagram posts for her audience, while also working her main job helping businesses to integrate sustainable development goals into their daily operations.

“Sustainability, for me, is about being resourceful,” Nguyen told Input in an interview. “I wouldn’t say I’m a zero waste warrior — but it’s about being mindful, and aligning your spending [and activism] to your values.” The London-based environmental advocate started Sustainable and Social after learning more about corporate social responsibility and greenwashing, while also wanting to leave a better future for the planet, and those who live on it. “My dad is a refugee,” Nguyen explained. “The trajectory of the world at the moment will see millions and millions of people displaced if we don’t sort [climate change] out.”

She mentioned that the more we’re able to educate ourselves on fashion’s poor sustainability — not just environmentally speaking — the more we would be able to communicate solutions and collaborate. “Another problem, besides the actual greenwashing going on,” Nguyen said, “is that customers don’t really know what sustainable practices look like.” With Sustainable and Social, though, she’s hoping to change that.

“It’s a mixture of everything,” she said about her blog. “If you want to talk about climate science, that’s cool. But I’m also happy to talk about sustainable shoes or cute ethical lip glosses.” With sustainability an overarching goal for many consumers, greenwashing is bound to show up in other markets — but it’s a bigger issue than deciding what brand of makeup to trust.

Production of “clean” products can actually cause more damage to the environment than their past counterparts. Nguyen cites The Better Cotton Initiative, a certification standard that claims it wants to “make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in, and better for the sector’s future.” Despite this messaging, however, Nguyen said farmers producing the cotton for BCI were found to have been forced under “awful labor conditions,” citing multiple researched articles to back her allegations. This claim joins hundreds of other “sustainable” myths disproved by Nguyen, thanks to her extensive research habits.

“It's the responsibility of businesses. It's the responsibility of governance. It's the responsibility of the industry.”

This fact-checking nature isn’t just something she practices for her page though — it’s something she says businesses should be implementing as well. “Companies need to use science-based targets,” the environmental advocate said. “[These targets] will help businesses meet specific, researched goals,” Nguyen continued, as opposed to purposefully vague objectives. But by keeping environmental goals, like carbon emission reduction, ambiguous, companies can keep getting away with their greenwashing ways.

All in all, there’s only so much individuals can do to combat greenwashing and other harmful environmental misinformation. “Really, it's the responsibility of businesses. It's the responsibility of governance. It's the responsibility of the industry,” Nguyen said. The fashion industry has many people with “a lot of power to transform things,” she added, but instead of customers shouting up at them, work needs to begin “top-down.” Of course, sustainability doesn’t have an easy or instantaneous solution — but if we all become as educated as Nguyen on the subject, diagnostic conversations can become more common, and perhaps, more appreciated.

Sustainability = inclusivity

Climate change’s reach stretches across the globe. Accordingly, so do the influencers fighting against it. Brittany Sierra runs Instagram blog @thesustainablefashionforum out of Portland, Oregon, and actually manages the page — and its accompanying events, speakers, and research — full-time. She began The Sustainable Fashion Forum in 2017, after noticing the lack of community between sustainable fashion enthusiasts and industry leaders. Now, her Instagram page boasts 188,000 followers all interested in making sustainable change.

Sierra’s blog came out of her passion for bringing a community together, alongside her dedication to understanding principled fashion, she told Input in an interview. By planning an event hosted by local sustainable designers in 2017, Sierra drew an audience — albeit much smaller at the time than her current following — and began hosting an annual conference centered around fashion and sustainability.

Implementing ethical fashion in her personal life can be hard, though, she said. “[Sustainable] marketing caters to a particular type of woman,” Sierra lamented. “She’s white and wealthy, and if she is black, she’s a lighter-skinned woman with natural makeup and hair.” Not fitting into the slim representation categories, Sierra admits to buying clothing that is cheaper, and not as good for the environment — or at least marketed that way. To counter this, she doesn’t shop often, and makes meaningful purchases that she knows will enjoy long and full lives in her closet.

“I think of sustainability and apply it to my life in a way that makes sense for my lifestyle, my budget, and what I'm actually able to do,” Sierra said. “Sure, I could save all of my dollars and go buy from a sustainable brand, but if it’s something I need right then, [splurging on a sustainable brand] isn’t accessible.” Sierra said she is among many who have been criticized for not switching over to more ethically sourced fashion, without having their lifestyle factors considered. She notes it’s really only “easy” to buy from sustainable brands if you’ve already got the means to do so, and she added that shopping extensively from a conscious brand still contributes to overconsumption of clothing.

In recent months, however, Sierra has noticed a growing number of sustainability-focused Instagram accounts — something she hopes brings along a more diverse group of voices. What was once a little hub is now “huge,” Sierra said, further observing how sustainable Instagram activists have their pros and cons. “It’s a great platform to spread awareness and get brands’ attention on,” she said, “but it can also spread misinformation so easily, and that’s harmful.”

“Consumers don’t understand the process of creating clothing.”

When it comes to the topic of greenwashing, Sierra thinks influencers can be too quick to call a brand out, curiously for one of the same reasons Nguyen thinks shoppers fall for false eco-advertising. “Consumers don’t understand the process of creating clothing,” she said.

“I think a lot of shoppers think brands can make changes right away, and they don’t understand why [companies] can’t.” Calling out brands for greenwashing can be disheartening, Sierra argued. Often, she says, brands have to cater to their stakeholders — who are definitely more concerned with money than sustainability. Smaller conscious collections can be a test-run for some of these companies, but when greeted by greenwashing claims, a brand is more likely to drop the capsule than want to continue working towards actual change.

Teaching Moment

“I think brands are scared to even talk about sustainability now because they don’t want to be called out for greenwashing,” Sierra said. “And that’s problematic, because to make change, we need everyone on board.” With The Sustainable Fashion Forum, she’s hoping to get more people “on board” with learning about sustainability.

If consumers don’t care — or aren’t aware — of sustainable fashion’s sad reality, change won’t be able to happen. Not only should citizens educate themselves on what they’re actually consuming, but they should study how exactly those products were made: Fashion goes deeper than just looks. And since research suggests brands listen most to money, citizens hold more power than they think, wielding economic control over businesses.

People don’t have to tolerate brands’ vague messaging or performative marketing, because ultimately they rely on shoppers to keep them in business. Despite how convincing their marketing schemes may seem, consumers are the ones deciding what they’re buying and where their purchases come from — choices that ultimately make the biggest impact.