Anisa Johnny: What We can do about Greenwashing in the Fashion Industry

While sustainable fashion is finally making inroads into the mainstream, large fashion brands are improving their CSR profiles to grab a piece of the growing eco-fashion market.  On the surface, making responsible changes to their business practices looks like good intentions, but in reality, consumers should ask what’s really going on behind the factory walls. Anisa Johnny gives you some insight into the topic of ‘greenwashing’ and examines 4  brands and their sustainable practices.

What is greenwashing?

We’ve all heard of the term to ‘whitewash’, which means to cover up something and make it appear better, usually to hide the truth. Like its namesake, ‘greenwashing’ is when companies use ‘green marketing’ campaigns to make their brand appear more concerned with the environment and sustainability than their products or business practices truly are. Due to the public’s interest in sustainable and environmentally friendly products, unscrupulous companies will tap into these desires and stretch the truth about their products, as far as advertising standards will allow them.

Why greenwash?

In 2015, Nielsen’s Global Sustainability Report predicted that over 60% of consumers worldwide are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products. They also stated that Millennial or Generation Y consumers (those from generation cohort born between the late 70s to 90s) would be over 70% more likely to pay a higher price for sustainable brands. As you can imagine the idea of charging customers more, is too promising an opportunity for the average profit-driven company to ignore; making  ‘greenwashing’ all the more appealing to Marketing or PR departments.

The H&M Case

Famous companies like H&M, have been accused of greenwashing. The company’s eco-friendly sub-brand, H&M Conscious, generates lots of free PR because the clothes are worn by celebrities like Michelle Williams & Amber Valetta – which is most likely paid endorsements.  Critics also say collecting their customers used clothes in store (via donation boxes), is just another marketing ploy. Simply because their clothes are designed with such a short life-cycle it encourages customers to throw away items after only a few washes. The initiative may help the environment but more importantly, benefits the company financially as customers’ are rewarded for their supposed ‘conscious’ shopping by getting vouchers to spend in store. When H&M launched its drive to collect 1,000 tonnes of unwanted clothes, a Guardian journalist uncovered that 1,000 tonnes of unwanted clothing were equal to what the brand makes in 2 days (48 hours). In fact consumers should be asking H&M what they do the other 363 days a year to help the environment.  In H&M’s own sustainability report the brand claims to produce 600 million garments per year of which only about 14% is made from organic cotton. As one critic pointed out, the entire business model is based on ‘built in obsolescence’ (a purposely designed short shelf life). As a result, H&M’s garments still contribute to landfill, whether the products are organic cotton or not.

Stella McCartney

Stella McCartney is one of the most high-profile eco fashion brands, mainly because of its famous founder who is a passionate vegan. The brand purports to makes cruelty free clothes by not using leather or fur and claims it incorporates sustainability into all business practices.  However, critics called out the brand over its collaboration with Adidas, co-branded as Stella McCartney for Adidas. In 2011 the parent brand of Adidas was implicated in an Observer newspaper expose. The article outlined how the company used factories in India and South East Asia, where workers were allegedly subject to physical and verbal abuse. Workers were found under conditions that are internationally recognized as a sweatshop.


Similarly, Zara launched an Eco Fashion range in 2016 aptly called ‘Join Life’, however, Zara’s parent company Inditex paid out a sum to victims of the Rana Plaza building collapse. Rana Plaza was a garment factory in Bangladesh which collapsed in 2013, killing over 1,134 people. Inditex paid into the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund established to collect compensation for the garment workers who lost their lives because Inditex had been a customer of the factory.  
Subsequently, the terrible tragedy highlighted the plight of Bangladesh garment workers, who are paid some of the lowest wages worldwide – as low as USD68 per month.  Even lower than Chinese garment workers, who are also considered as receiving low wages (approx $200 per month at the time of the incident). As a result Fashion Revolution, an international organisation that works towards better transparency, sustainability and ethics in the fashion industry, was formed.

Beauty Products

Some sustainable beauty bloggers call out cosmetics brands as the worst culprits because they appear to use green-sounding names that make consumers assume the contents are ‘organic’ or ‘natural’. On closer inspection of the ingredients, which often means looking up some of the terms, the natural sounding products are often no different from other brands using harsh chemicals. Natural beauty bloggers criticize brands like Tarte Cosmetics for using classic marketing half-truths like ‘Earth Engineered’ or ‘High-Performance Naturals’.  Technically, they are not lying because those terms do not claim to have 100% natural ingredients. However, such phrases are probably misleading to some customers who will assume from the packaging and emphasis on natural elements that the product is indeed chemical free. In Tarte’s case, one would assume minerals are the main contents of the product.

Seeing Through Greenwashing

With all this in mind, consumers have to take time to investigate the claims of brands before accepting all their advertising campaigns as fact. When it comes to food, it is second nature for us to read the ingredients or small print – unfortunately the same cannot be said when we make our fashion choices. If brand’s make claims that sound strange either on the packaging or in marketing campaigns, it probably is marketing spin or greenwashing, so do take time to investigate further. So how should you do your research? You can investigate a brand’s claim by checking forums, speaking to experts and of course emailing the brand directly to see if you get a response.

A Step In The Right Direction

Not to defend the brands who are accused of greenwash, but there is a school of thought, which applauds these brands for trying to take steps towards sustainability – which is a positive step in the right direction. Whilst they should be called out for greenwashing, we should also support the efforts of brands like Zara & H&M who are committed to changing certain areas of their business model. Each incremental step does help with climate change, whether it is a conscious collection, or low energy store lighting and recycled packaging. Let’s hope the change comes faster than the current pace of the fashion industry’s commitment to reducing its impact on the environment. However, that change can only come if we play our part as consumers being informed and mindful about what we buy.

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