What Is Greenwashing in Fashion?

Don’t applaud every ‘green’ initiative you see in clothing stores

Photo: Robin O’Kane

Fashion means different things to different people, and it can be anything from a means of self expression to a source of annoyance. Irrespective of anyone’s personal feelings, manufactured clothing is an enormous global industry that has a massive impact on human society and on the planet.

In the past, new clothing was purchased on a more occasional basis, the average person switching out pieces when they were worn out or when the seasons changed. But in recent decades, clothing became more “affordable” as runway trends hit stores weekly and online shopping became a popular pastime. As a result of demand and rapidly changing industry norms, fast fashion has progressively encouraged more and more waste.

Photo: Silviu Beniamin Tofan via Unsplash

Almost all of us are familiar with brands like Forever21, H&M, and Zara. These low-cost, low-quality retailers are always on trend. These brands allow people from almost every demographic to enjoy the luxury of keeping up with fashion. Sounds good, right?

Some of these brands are even making moves to produce more sustainable and environmentally conscious collections and initiatives. Upon first glance, this looks like a positive step in the right direction, but if you take a closer look, you’ll find something more sinister lying beneath the surface.

The term “greenwashing” was first coined by Jay Westerveld in 1986 as a response to Chevron ads that promoted a green image for a corporation that had a bad environmental reputation. This tactic of using environmentalism, green imagery, and popular buzzwords associated with protecting the planet is typical of greenwashing campaigns. The Magazine for Corporate Responsibility defines it as “the phenomena of socially and environmentally destructive corporations, attempting to preserve and expand their markets or power by posing as friends of the environment.”

Companies know that consumers are interested in conservation and have concerns about waste. Among millennials surveyed by Bruce Watson for the Guardian (2016), a whopping 72% said they would pay more money for sustainable products.

Design: Back to Zero. Based on statistics from ‘The Myth of Sustainable Fashion

So as more and more consumers are becoming conscious of the environmental impact of the fast fashion industry, they’re putting pressure on corporations to get their sh*t together. And, while environmental activism and sustainability practices are huge, long-term movements, they’re also incredibly trendy — and where there’s a trend, there’s a brand to capitalize on it.

Fast fashion, by definition, thrives on a model that creates a constant cycle of consumption and waste, while sustainability focuses on breaking down such systems. Seems like a bit of a contradiction, no?

So why do fashion companies use greenwashing marketing tactics, instead of making significant changes?

Youth Climate Strike Vienna, Austria (2019). Photo: Back to Zero

The simple answer is that greenwashing is cheaper, faster, and easier — while benefitting their business rather than making it more difficult. With more and more consumers making a commitment to spend their money on earth-conscious brands, greenwashing has become a way for fast-fashion companies to stake their claim in the market. With effective advertising campaigns and good marketing, any corporate or small scale company can generate a green image for their brand regardless of their actual business practices.

So, a fast fashion company — let’s use H&M as an example — rolls out a “Garment Collecting” campaign as a way for the corporation to include themselves in the eco-conscious narrative, while still maintaining their harmful business practices.

In a Marketplace segment on CBC News, Claudia Marsales explained that for companies like H&M, “it would take 12 years to recycle what they sell in 48 hours.” Creating a meaningless “recycling” campaign is an easy way to seem green, without having to make any actual changes to their production model.

Greenwashing muddies the waters of buying sustainable and ethical products by overwhelming consumers with choices that are difficult to differentiate between.

Because terms like eco-friendly, natural, or pure aren’t lawfully authorized the same way as certifications like FairTrade and Animal-Free Testing, it’s incredibly difficult to determine the authenticity of so-called green products; Unfortunately, it’s the responsibility of the consumer to sift through the overwhelming amount of green marketing to find authentic brands they can trust.

Greenwashing muddies the waters of buying sustainable and ethical products by overwhelming consumers with choices that are difficult to differentiate between. It makes it more challenging for authentically ethical and sustainable brands to build their presence in a growing tide of green campaigns.

How can people be responsible for making the right choices when companies aren’t being transparent about their overarching business practices? Green initiatives could be great, but they don’t build corporate responsibility when they start with marketing rather than a fundamental shift to business practices.

Greenpeace describes the greenwashing strategy of “using targeted advertising or public relations to exaggerate a green achievement so as to divert attention from actual environmental problems — or [in other words,] spending money to brag about green behavior without actually investing in green deeds”.

Brands like Chevron promote their dedication to the environmental through public commitments, such as the “Protecting the Environment” page on their website. These commitments are part of a larger campaign meant to help their public image after being found responsible for dumping “over 18.5 billion gallons of toxic water into the [Amazon] rainforest” over the course of two decades. This tactic can also be seen in Fiji’s “Nature’s Gift” ads, which use nature-inspired imagery and earthy language to conceal the fact that their plastic bottles take 450 years to break down.

Photo: Erik Mclean via Unsplash

When you shift your focus to fashion brands, you can observe many of the same misleading and inflated environmental claims. Chevron and Fiji Water may be more well-known for their environmental impact, but there is symmetry between them and fast-fashion brands like Uniqlo and Lululemon. Both brands have pages on their websites dedicated to their environmental and sustainability commitments, but neither are fulfilling these pledges to the fullest extent. To get a better understanding of these brands and their commitment to the environment, check out their ratings on Good On You — a good place to start if you’re looking to take on your own research on whether companies are fulfilling the environmental claims implied by their marketing teams.

Green, ethical, and sustainable business practices are not a trend, they’re a choice. Big corporations and small businesses alike have an obligation to implement real changes to tear down down harmful structures of inequality and environmental abuse. It’s time for us as members of society to educate ourselves and hold brands accountable to their claims and commitments. Actions will always speak louder than words, so take where you spend your money seriously. You’re never just buying a cute new top.

Hi there! We’re Audrey and Mara, two recent undergraduates passionate about making complex concepts accessible. Environmentalism and Social Justice.

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