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How the fashion industry is greenwashing your clothes

The truth behind the most common sustainability claims.

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From budget brands and luxury labels alike, fashion is filled with eco-friendly promises. But not every "sustainable" style on the rack is as it seems. Despite the environmentally conscious philosophy many brands tout, clothing manufacturers are known for "greenwashing"—when claims of sustainability are used as a marketing tactic rather than representative of an actual impact.

So how can you know whether you're adding truly eco-friendly fashions to your closet? We tapped Lynda Grose, professor of fashion design and critical studies at California College of the Arts, and Jennifer Whitty, assistant professor of fashion systems and materiality at Parsons School of Design in New York City, to breakdown buzzwords commonly seen on "sustainable" clothing labels.

What is greenwashing?

A person in a yellow shirt and mask looks through a rack of shirts.
Credit: Reviewed / Getty Images / gorodenkoff

Greenwashing can occur among a variety of brands.

Greenwashing occurs when a brand makes unsubstantiated, often misleading claims about its environmental impact. "Vagueness is more often than not a means of covering up," says Whitty. In other words, if product descriptions seem like they "don't really mean anything," be "very skeptical and wary" of their claims about sourcing, manufacturing practices, and so on.

While greenwashing isn't exclusive to wearable items—vague sustainability claims run the gamut from household basics to haircare—there's "so much" of the practice in the fashion industry, says Grose. In June 2022, for instance, global non-profit alliance the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) paused use of a tool based on the the Higg index—a widely used sustainability metric—amid claims that it wasn't presenting totally accurate information. The product labeling tool appeared on consumer-facing materials from brands including H&M to score garments "based on the environmental impact of the materials in the product," as the H&M site states. Criticism of the metric included not factoring in the impact of a garment's full life cycle (from sourcing to discarding) and placing too much emphasis on synthetic fabrics as being better for the environment than those made of natural fibers.

How can you avoid greenwashing?

To spot potentially performative claims, be critical of product descriptions. Look for product-specific statements versus company-wide initiatives, as a brand's sustainability practices might not apply to all of its offerings.

Beyond the brand, search for information from independent online resources. Research "trusted, accredited brands" on a directory such as Good On You that does "in-depth vetting of all claims...[and] are fair and transparent in their evaluation," says Whitty. You may also check reports from Remake, a non-profit organization that evaluates sustainability efforts at many top brands, Grose says. "Do some research on the company itself and how big it is, where do they source from, and do they know their producers."

If you come up with more questions than answers, consider speaking up by contacting the brand directly. "There's a lot of power in just asking questions, and when you ask an informed question with that little bit of detail there, it sends a message to the company that customers are getting...more aware and that we better pay attention," says Grose.

For more ways to evaluate sustainability claims, we broke down some of the most popular environmental terms fashion brands use—and their potential for greenwashing.

Sustainable

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Credit: Reviewed / Getty Images / Iryna Imago

Terms such as sustainable, eco-friendly, and green don't always indicate real impact.

Similar to buzzwords like "vegan leather," the ubiquitous term is the latest label without concrete guarantees or regulations. "The word sustainable has become the same as eco-friendly or green," says Grose, who warns against taking so-called sustainable fashion at face value. "It doesn't really mean anything, so the best thing that a consumer can do is to say 'can you be more specific about what you mean?'" This is where digging into directories or the details on a brand's website may be helpful.

In the search for companies that take sustainability seriously, you can also look for certified B corporations, which have been evaluated in several areas of sustainability. "There are many, many different certifications and networks in the fashion industry that focus on one specific area...and while these are super important, I think we need to look at holistic certifications that look at all of the pillars of sustainability all together, as nothing happens in isolation," says Whitty. B corporations are evaluated for practices surrounding "governance, workers, community, [and] the environment" in addition to "the product or service the company provides." And because this certification must be renewed every three years, it also represents a commitment to continued progress.

Carbon neutral

The fashion industry is responsible for 8% to 10% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations. Carbon-neutral companies attempt to offset these emissions by buying "carbon offsets," which "fund projects that reduce an equivalent amount of emissions," says Whitty. The offsets are an investment in projects that will reduce carbon (i.e. renewable energy, tree planting, and so on) in order to compensate for a company's carbon emissions.

However, while reducing or offsetting carbon emissions is an important piece of the puzzle, it's not enough on its own. "Carbon offsets can not operate in isolation and can take away from what a brand really needs to be doing—reforming their supply chain," says Whitty. "Buying carbon credits without truly changing the way a brand operates isn't really sustainable."

Supply-chain transparency

Blue shirts hang on a metal clothing rack.
Credit: Reviewed / Getty Images / netrun78

Lack of supply-chain transparency can hide important information from customers.

One thing companies might group under the umbrella of "sustainability"? Supply-chain transparency, an oft-used term that should describe the providing of information about the full production process. But especially for large brands with global supply chains, this is no straightforward task. "Things like the Higg index and organizations that say they...make these things transparent [are] only working on the parts of the supply chain that can be transparent," says Grose.

"We know so little about the fashion supply chain as the majority of the story is concealed from us through smoke and mirrors," says Whitty, adding that 50% of major brands still don't disclose information about their supply chains. This hides important information from consumers, as a lack of transparency can allow "exploitative, unsafe working conditions and environmental damage to thrive while obscuring who has the responsibility and power to redress these issues."

Even if brands are able to report accurately, the term "supply-chain transparency" has its limits. "Transparency in itself isn't enough," says Grose—the term simply refers to gathering information and being honest about the findings. "Companies use that as a marketing tool, but that doesn't mean that they're more sustainable unless they're acting upon what they find," she says. As a consumer, however, such transparency can allow you to be more informed of the systems and practices you are supporting with your money.

Organic

Stacks of jeans folded on a shelf, with a hand holding a tag that reads "100% organic."
Credit: Reviewed / Getty Images / Tero Vesalainen

Synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and GMOs are not used in certified organic products.

If a product is certified organic through a third-party certification such as the Global Organic Textile Standard, no "disallowed chemicals"—such as synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and GMOs—were used in its production, says Grose. Products with just a GOTS label must have 70% organic materials, while ones with its top organic label grade must reach 95%.

It's important to note that the use of some chemicals that are disallowed in organic standards are in fact banned for use in the U.S., so therefore are unlikely to have been used to begin with, Grose says, so "companies will often source cotton in places that are organic by default." Plus, while a step in the right direction, the organic label doesn't factor in other important measures, such as reduced water use or whether the company pays farmers a fair wage.

Recycled

In "recycled" fabrics and fashions, cast-off materials get a new life. "The promise of 'recycled' is that rather than extracting new resources, you're using some old resources...whether it's postconsumer garments or industrial waste," says Grose. To figure out how far a company's efforts actually extend, it's important to determine what percentage of the fabric was recycled. "It's a matter of [asking] is this 100% recycled then?" she says. "And [if so] will it be recycled again [or] resold again?...Or is it 30% recycled? So what's the rest?"

We've tested several recycled styles over the years, including Girlfriend Collective's Float Seamless High-Rise Leggings, which the brand claims are made from 90% recycled plastic bottles and 10% spandex. The brand ranks well on the directories recommended by Grose and Whitty, with Good On You rating it 4 out of 5 for its efforts.

Circular design or circularity

In the traditional linear product life cycle, clothes are manufactured, purchased, then eventually thrown away. Circular systems are a more eco-friendly antidote, as old clothes at the end of their lifecycle, known as "outputs," instead become new "inputs" for garments through recycling (or are reused and continue their lifecycle).

While true circularity is widely acknowledged as a positive step, Grose says the term is "way overused" in the fashion industry, where "people are using the term circular design and circularity very freely." After all, once products make their way from factories to distribution centers to global consumers, "they're really hard [for the company] to get back," she says.

Eileen Fisher is among the brands that has "good policies on circularity," according to Good On You. The clothing label offers a program where it buys back garments once consumers are done with them, then either resells, donates, or incorporates them into new designs.

Resale

With eco-friendliness at the forefront of many consumers' minds, some companies are launching their own initiatives to directly "resell" their own products. However, like the rest of these sustainability initiatives, Grose says it's possible things aren't what they seem. "Often it's waste inventory that they're selling and not necessarily second-hand or previously worn stuff," she says, referring to inventory that gets leftover when factory orders don't match up with sales—something she calls a "big problem" amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In that case, "the sales model remains linear instead of circular," says Grose. "There's so much greenwashing going on, really."

Still, it's more earth-conscious to buy something that was already made and otherwise destined for the trash. In addition to shopping company-owned resale shops, you might consider finding your favorite fashion brands on second-hand sites like ThredUp, Poshmark, and Ebay. After all, buying quality second-hand goods is a sustainable practice you'll never need to be skeptical about. "Ultimately it's about the age-old mantra, of buying less, buying better," says Whitty. "Better use practices enable us to shop our own wardrobes, and be certain of longevity of life, extending [use]."

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