The 'Greenwashing' Hiding the Truth of Your Favourite Fashion Brands

High street brands might talk about "ethics" and "sustainability", but that doesn't mean they're actually doing anything ethical or sustainable.

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01 May 2019, 9:04am

Illustration: Sam Taylor 

I've run a feminist fashion brand called Birdsong since 2014. Most of our clothing is made by women working in charity workshops, rather than factories. We visit them weekly, know them by name and pay a London Living Wage. We know how their families are, and where they’re next going on holiday.

There are some things we buy in from overseas, like plain T-shirts. After months of research, asking around, calling suppliers and reading reports, we settled on a supplier who appeared to be industry leaders in terms of their production. One of their factories was even named "the best for garment workers in Bangladesh" in 2009, and it was a member of the Fair Wear Foundation, a non-profit that works to improve factory conditions for garment workers in 11 countries across the world.

Unfortunately, we recently became aware that our supplier's standards had slipped, after a Guardian investigation revealed claims that a female employee at one of their factories had been assaulted on the orders of management. (It's worth noting that because there was a system in place for workers to report abuse, that's how we heard about the complaint, and that other brands might sweep these claims under the carpet.) A spokesperson for the company later said it had set up an anti-harassment system and had a zero tolerance policy on physical and verbal abuse.

We immediately switched suppliers, and will be donating the sale of clothes produced in that factory to garment workers' unions. Despite all of our best efforts, even we got duped by the power of the greenwash. In a world where supply chains are increasingly fractured, sustainability is all the rage and consumers are used to paying incredibly low prices for clothes, how do we know who to trust?

The term "greenwashing" was coined in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld to describe companies which grossly overstate the environmental or ethical benefits of their products and services. Decades on, even for seasoned brand sceptics like myself, fashion’s adoption of greenwashing is reaching ever more sophisticated heights. It's hard to make informed choices about our consumption. In part, this is because the literature of ethics and sustainability is notoriously hard to navigate. Just because a brand instigates a better workers' code, doesn’t mean that they’re not polluting by the bucketload, and vice versa. Meanwhile, workers' rights and environmental impact often get conflated under the same umbrella of sustainability. While the two can be interlinked, it’s important to remember that workers' rights and environmental sustainability are separate things.

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A wool coat from Boohoo.

Sometimes brands profess to be sustainable, animal friendly or environmentally conscious as a PR strategy. Take Boohoo, for instance: earlier this year, they announced they’d be banning all wool in their clothes, before reversing their decision within hours. At the time, Peta called Boohoo Group’s ban a "compassionate, business-savvy decision". It was later revealed that no wool products were actually stocked by Boohoo, and that the fake fur they retailed may actually be even worse for the environment (fake fur is typically made from plastic, which does not biodegrade). Meanwhile, a 2017 Dispatches investigation found garment workers making Boohoo products in the UK earned only £3 an hour, below the legal minimum wage. It's hard to see that much compassion or sustainability being extended to the workers making Boohoo's products, or in their choice of polluting, synthetic fibres.

A brand that is seemingly adept at the smoke and mirrors imagery of artisanally-produced garments is & Other Stories. Wander into their beautifully airy stores and you'll be greeted with posters of white women's hands loftily holding tailoring scissors over cloth. These images are overlaid with the words "Stockholm Atelier", as if to imply that the product was created in a Swedish factory, with all the labour protections that are (usually) afforded European garment workers. Sure, the products may have been designed in Stockholm. But look at the clothing tags and you’ll see that the products are made in China, Bulgaria and Bangladesh. Owned by H&M, & Other Stories uses the same supply chain as its low-cost, better known big sister. It’s this not so subtle slight of (white women's) hands that appears to lead customers into a false sense of security about the provenance of their items.

One of the buzzwords I was initially sceptical of (alongside "empowering" and "conscious") is "transparency". Non-profit Fashion Revolution put together a Global Transparency Index, based on how much brands disclose about their policies, practices and impact. H&M has made huge improvements in transparency, coming fourth in the 2018 index with a score of 55 percent, placing it ahead of brands such as Topshop (which scored 26 percent) and Urban Outfitters (a measly 6 percent). However, transparency doesn’t correlate to perfect ethics in itself. Factories may subcontract out work, or only show off good working practices when there are factory inspections; there are so many ways to cheat the system. Transparency is absolutely a step in the right direction, but there's so much more information brands should disclose, if they are to be fully transparent: details on how much union representation workers have, maternity rights, how incidents in their HR department are dealt with and how much their workers are paid.

Part of the reason brands are able to be vague about their environmental and social commitments is because of the lack of nuance and public education surrounding words like "ethical" and "sustainable". If you peruse Arket’s marketing materials, for example, you’ll see frequent references to sustainability. A subsidiary brand of H&M, Arket at least provides information about where their factories are and how many people are employed in them. But H&M seems to have failed to meet its own standards when it comes to paying workers a living wage.

The Clean Clothes Campaign has been monitoring H&M’s public commitments on pay and conditions. They found that the company made a commitment that its suppliers would pay a fair living wage by 2018. By 2019, this pledge had been watered down to "clear expectations regarding fair living wages". While wanting to improve your business is laudable, H&M is one of the global brands that created fast fashion and the moral clusterfuck of problems associated with it. No amount of greenwashing will change the fact that workers in H&M supplier factories don’t earn a living wage, are reported to have fainted from exhaustion at work and face repercussions for union organising.

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H&M's Conscious Collection

So, what’s an ethically-minded fashion lover to do? Personally, I’m increasingly taking the route of trusting no brand on the high street. Good On You is a brilliant place to start for breaking down the language, comparing brands and finding better alternatives. Part fashion blog, part rating system, Good On You pull together looks and high street shopping guides with an expert driven rating system. Their ratings take people, planet and animal welfare all into account, in a way that’s easy to digest.

Sadly, it’s a good general rule of thumb to assume that, unless a brand really goes out of their way to show otherwise, it’s probably the case that someone was exploited to make your garment. However, just because brands aren’t perfect, doesn’t mean they’re not genuinely trying or that we should boycott them entirely. For example, Reformation currently pay 22 percent of their workers a living wage. That’s not good enough, but their openness about it – and clear action to get to 100 percent – is refreshing and should be supported.

Another approach – and a cheaper one, at that – is to buy vintage and second-hand more often. Depop, charity shops or a clothes swap with friends. This allows you to minimise your environmental impact while updating your wardrobe. When you do buy new, make sure it’s made by skilled workers, in good conditions – a win for you too, as it’ll last longer.

It’s worth pointing out that greenwashing isn’t a wholly negative trend. "A greenwash could also be a precursor to real change, a step in the right direction," concedes Orsola De Castro of Fashion Revolution. She hopes that greenwashing may encourage consumers to become more aware of environmental and social issues, and ultimately more savvy: "The true antidote to greenwashing is knowledge – be curious, find out and do something." From H&M Conscious, to Mango’s Committed line, it’s refreshing to see brands at least talking about the topic of sustainability, even if the ethics of these brands are still questionable.

While progress is being made, the change of pace isn’t fast enough: 100 billion garments will be produced this year, using mostly polluting methods, in bad conditions, for poor wages and with a huge proportion eventually going to landfill. It’s time to get curious, challenge the high street status quo and get wise to greenwash.

In response to the allegations set out in this piece, a Boohoo spokesperson said:

"Boohoo continues to assess all options as part of its ongoing commitment to a more sustainable future. Boohoo did not formally agree to ban wool, meaning there was no subsequent reversal of the ban. Wool is a very small part of the boohoo supply chain, comprising less than 1 percent of the raw material inputs. It’s rare for any of our individual garments to be more than 10 percent wool. Our suppliers must comply with our animal welfare policy and supplier code of conduct. We are committed to ensuring the wool used in our supply chain comes from good husbandry and meets high levels of animal welfare, and will continue to use wool as a sustainable material.

"We are committed to ensuring that all the garment workers producing the clothes we sell are paid at least the minimum wage and we will not work with suppliers who pay below the minimum wage. We have an in-house compliance team whose job is to ensure that our products are made in factories which comply with all legal and regulatory requirements relating to minimum wage and working conditions."

A spokesperson for H&M said:

"Earning a living wage is a fundamental human right and the reason why we, as one of the very first companies, acted on this. However, to make fair living wages a reality for garment workers around the world, there are certain steps that must be taken first. If you skip those steps because you are eager to hurry things up, you will end up with a shaky foundation that does not contribute to systemic change. The first steps are all about creating mechanisms, processes and collaborations, as well as a new mind-set. Indeed, complex and not very straight-forward things to communicate around, but nevertheless essential when it comes to making fair living wages a reality for garment workers.

"The H&M group has since several years had a dialogue Clean Clothes Campaign [sic] and even if we respect their opinion and share the same vision, we disagree on how to best achieve progress. We listen to recommendations from the ILO and the global trade union IndustriALL on how a company such as ours should address this complex issue. They support our way of working, and we will continue to listen to them.

"Summing up these first five years, we can see that the processes are beginning to fall into place: by empowering garment workers and making fair negotiations possible, we have formed industry collaborations that will enable the entire industry to take steps forward. We have also improved our purchasing practices to ensure that they support fair living wages, for example by excluding labour costs from price negotiations. And most importantly, within the industry approach ACT, we have, together with 22 other brands and the global union IndustriALL that represents garment workers, paved the way for a true game-changer and turning point for the industry: collective bargaining agreements at industry level supported by responsible purchasing practices. In order to secure significant wage increases, it’s essential that the work done at individual factories – which our goals for 2018 were about – is accompanied by industry solutions, such as industry-wide collective bargaining agreements.

"Thus, the first steps in creating a solid foundation for fair living wages have been taken. Even if our work is long-term and we never held expectations of fair living wages by 2018, we can see some important progress when it comes to wages. We are one of the few companies to have wage data publicly available."

@sophieavalon