“While brands are quick to capitalise on consumer concern by using sustainability as a marketing ploy, the vast majority of such claims are all style and no substance. While they greenwash their clothing collections, they are simultaneously dragging their feet on embracing truly circular solutions, for example by not making the necessary investments to ensure a future in which clothes can be recycled back into clothes.” – Urska Trunk, Campaign Manager at Changing Markets.
The term “greenwashing” was first coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld back in 1986, when consumers received almost all of their news from television, radio and print media. These platforms were constantly flooded by ads and commercials for big companies, like Shell and Camel. Big corps had all the control; the lack of public access to information made it difficult for people to believe what was otherwise stated in the commercials. They could say they were saving the Earth and no one could prove the contrary.
Thankfully, that’s not the case anymore. With access to the internet at the palm of our hand, reporting of actual consequences and actions has become much easier. An excellent example is the newly released Changing Markets report “Synthetics Anonymous: Fashion brands’ addiction to fossil fuels”. The Changing Markets Foundation was created to accelerate sustainability and works with different NGOs to create campaigns to shift away from unsustainable products and towards green and environmentally friendly solutions.
The report studied 50 global fashion brands that ranged from high-end to mainstream, of which 46 are considered to be “the most transparent”. Most of the brands made false sustainability claims and deceived their customers into thinking the green commitments were true, when the amount of fossil fuel-based materials in the collections are the same as 10 years ago. It came to the conclusion that greenwashing is now the biggest marketing tool used. According to the study, 59% of green claims disregarded the UK Competition and Markets Authority guidelines in some way.
Changing Markets concluded that there were 3 main brands with the highest amounts of false claims: H&M with 96% false claims, ASOS with 89% and M&S with 88% false claims. H&M went under most scrutiny for false commitment. In fact, H&M has a Conscious Collection since 2010 that promises that “at least 50% of each piece is made from more sustainable materials, like organic cotton or recycled polyester”. However, this collection was found to contain an even higher share of synthetics than the main one (72% compared to 61%).
Synthetic fibres represent over two thirds of all materials used in textiles. If consumer behavior remains the same, synthetic fibers will represent three quarters of all materials by 2030. The most commonly used material is polyester, which is made from fossil fuels. Currently, 1,35% of oil consumption comes from the production of these synthetic materials. This “addiction” –as the report calls it– creates a stronger dependence from fashion companies to use the fibers, which in turn make for low-quality pieces of clothing that will most likely end up in a landfill.
The Foundation’s report noticed that although several brands are making promises to stray away from virgin polyester which comes from non-renewable resources and is not biodegradable, no company is actually making a clear commitment to dismantle the use of synthetic fibers. Instead, they substitute the polyester with downcycled single-use materials like plastic bottles, which sounds enticing but in reality, what the future holds for that piece is a landfill or incineration.
Changing Markets is now urging brands, policymakers and consumers to make a change in their behaviour, saying that letting this slide when the information has come to light will only let companies continue greenwashing campaigns. The Foundation urges brands to tackle this obsession with harmful synthetic materials and to make an actual feasible commitment to organically sourced materials and textiles, and find a way around circular solutions. It raises the question to companies, “how much longer will they go making false claims to their customers’ faces?” and encourages brands to invest in real sustainable practices.
Livia Firth, co-founder and creative director at Eco-Age, is known for crafting creative campaigns around the issues of social and environmental justice. As an ally for the Changing Markets report, she stated that: “There is so much greenwashing regarding circularity – a much needed business model we all need to adopt, but made nearly impossible in the fashion industry by the vast amount of synthetic fibres used, we have also been working for a few months at EU level to make sure that the proposed PEF (Product Environmental Footprint) label uses the correct methodology, and we hope the EU Commission will take this groundbreaking report into consideration.”
Regarding policymaking, Changing Market recommends legislators to take measures against the inconsiderate use of harmful synthetics and tackle the issue of low quality mass making and overall unsustainable fast fashion. It asks policymakers to promote a circular economy in the upcoming EU textile strategy and promote transparency and responsibility in fashion brands’ supply chain.
According to the report, “The European Commission should commit to addressing the excesses of the fast-fashion model, which is inherently unsustainable. The Commission should introduce Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes, with mandatory and ambitious eco design measures, and brands must become responsible for the end of life of their products – which should be separately collected, reused, repaired and ultimately recycled in a viable, environmentally benign, fibre-to-fibre process. We also need EU regulation on green claims, as our investigation confirms that, in the Wild West of greenwashing, brands are currently getting away with making a sea of misleading claims that go entirely unchallenged. The European Commission is currently working on ‘Empowering Consumers for the Green Transition’ and ‘Substantiating Green Claims’, two new legislative initiatives that should include measures to avoid greenwashing and make sustainability claims more reliable. The Commission should propose mandatory rules to address misleading claims. The Commission should also pay special attention to increasing supply-chain transparency and oblige companies to adopt due diligence with regards to human rights and environmental violations”