Sustainability has been a fashion buzzword for years. But are brands really doing all they can to make green a reality? Vogue Arabia investigates how “greenwashing” can muddy the waters of ethical business.
But what do these words mean? To the consumer they can be comforting, a reassurance that their purchases aren’t doing unnecessary damage to the environment and vulnerable populations suffering the ill effects of the climate emergency. But is that always the case? How can we know if so-called eco-friendly accessories aren’t just a tool for “greenwashing” – marketing products as sustainable to hide companies’ more environmentally damaging practices.
“Greenwashing is a many-layered issue,” says Carry Somers, founder and global operations director of Fashion Revolution, a UK-based movement that campaigns for a clean, safe, and fair fashion industry. “Some of it is the customer’s interpretation – what someone sees as greenwashing someone else might see as an important step. Then there’s bluewashing – brands claiming their credentials in terms of positive impact on the oceans. I think in the future we will see more of both.”
Eric Mathieu Ritter of Beirut-based label Emergency Room could never be accused of greenwashing. His brand creates one-off handmade upcycled garments exclusively from locally sourced deadstock fabric and second-hand clothes. His focus on the welfare of garment workers as well as protection of the environment and elimination of waste make him a beacon in an industry that’s responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions – the total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production are more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. But when it comes to greenwashing, Ritter remains sympathetic to the bigger retailers. “Working in the fashion industry, I became aware of how bad it is, both environmentally and in how it treats its workers,” he says. “I didn’t want to enter the fashion world unless I could do it differently – I wanted to prove that it can be done in an all-around sustainable and proper way. But when it comes to greenwashing, it’s a gray area. A lot of people are quick to denounce it. I started only three years ago and decided to be as sustainable as possible. But when you’ve been running a company in one way for many years, it’s hard to change overnight. Maybe some brands are doing things in the right direction, but the problem is we don’t know if what they are doing is really beneficial. It’s tricky. No business is ever as transparent as people would want them to be.”
It is transparency that’s key to forging paths toward true sustainability.
“What is clear is that sharing information is good for business and protecting the brand’s reputation,” says Somers. “If there is a disaster or a brand is accused of something, it’s difficult for them to say that it has nothing to do with them unless they publicly published their supply chains.”
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Somers’s Fashion Revolution produces a yearly report called the Fashion Transparency Index, ranking 250 of the world’s largest fashion brands and retailers according to how much information they disclose.
“People often confuse transparency and sustainability,” says Somers. “Transparency leads to greater accountability and helps to reveal the systems in place so we can better understand how to improve them. Being transparent doesn’t necessarily mean they are the most sustainable brands. They can publish a lot of information but still be producing an incredible amount of clothing each year. Likewise, there can be a lot of brands who are doing a lot of good things behind closed doors – so we need that disclosure so we can hold brands accountable for both their environmental and human rights impact.”
And when it comes to impact, many brands may mean well, but not go far enough to make a real difference.
“The fashion industry needs to factor sustainability into its core decision-making process,” says Chloe Foster of the Applied Negative Emissions Centre, a UK-based organization that works to support companies in reducing emissions, carbon removal, and using technology to tackle climate change. “This means that they need to fundamentally transform the way they do business; from material sourcing and ethical production to business-model innovations. By addressing sustainability issues from the roots, companies are less likely to chase unsustainable growth and more likely to factor in the social and environmental values of their businesses. The surface-level promotion of eco-friendliness can create assumptions and consumer patterns that enforce unsustainable practices, rather than challenging them. For example, materials can be good in terms of climate change or plastic pollution, but they are harmful to the wider biodiversity or have a heavy impact through the pollution of water, most of the time in developing countries. Everything is interconnected, so production decisions need to be made through a holistic approach. Companies should be fully transparent with the information they share with the public so anyone who wants to explore their claims can find the evidence to back it up.”
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Somers is completely in agreement – and thinks that the fashion industry needs to take things a whole lot further. “We need to see brands doing a lot more to measure and monitor their raw materials. The Kering Group of brands runs a program called the Environmental Profit & Loss account, which is transparent and puts a price and monetary value on the entire group’s sustainability. We need to see more of that, not just at board level but with everybody in the company being incentivized in terms of their environmental impact, because designers and buyers have an equally important role to play.”
So if the fashion industry wants to clean up its act, the answer is simple. It shouldn’t try to be green – first, it needs to be clear.
To know more, make sure to tune into Vogue Arabia’s Future of Sustainable Fashion digital event on June 28 at 4pm UAE time/3pm KSA time. Click here to register.