For some brands buzzwords like ‘sustainable’ and ‘eco-friendly’ are just PR gimmicks. Read on to learn more!
Imagine this: Lockdown has been lifted, you’ve been vaccinated and the malls have reopened. You head to your favourite high-street brand’s store only to find that they’re on sale! You walk in and pick up a few things that will help you stand apart at post-pandemic parties for less than ₹5,000. You may look damn good, but eventually, you’ll want to look better. Soon, you replace your outfits with some cooler ones. This is an endless loop that the fast-fashion brands thrive on.
Truth can often be a bitter pill to swallow, but the reality is that the fashion industry can’t go on making, using up resources and throwing away clothes like the way they’ve been for the past 50 years! We can’t keep consuming the way we’ve been either. Climate change is real and the fashion industry is a part of the problem because it accounts for around 10 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity; second only to fossil fuels!
We are not saying that there aren’t brands that are genuinely embracing sustainable solutions. However, ‘eco-conscious’, ‘ethical’, and everyone’s favourite ‘sustainable’—are just some of the buzzwords doing the rounds to enhance the green credentials of brands and MNCs. You may be someone who looks for these labels in order to be a responsible consumer, but you need to make sure that you’re not buying into greenwashing!
WHAT IS GREENWASHING?
Coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westervelt, greenwashing—or ‘green sheen’—is when a company uses misleading or false claims to suggest it’s doing more for the environment than it actually is. “In simple terms, greenwashing is a marketing ploy that brands turn to, so as to be perceived as being more sustainable than they really are,” explains Prerna Singh Butalia, founder and editor, Pretty As You Please—a digital platform on sustainability in fashion. In all fairness, there’s no denying that it’s tough to be eco-conscious, empower the people who work with and for you, and to break-even in a business. However, according to Butalia, the difference between greenwashing and being realistic and only doing what you can (especially for small businesses) is the overall impact of your actions—the motive behind a do-good initiative (making a real difference as opposed to saying you want to make a difference)—and transparency of your processes. “If a brand is playing up one eco-friendly move or social-justice initiative, without mentioning anything about their other processes, they are greenwashing. Or they could simply use ambiguous terms that sound positive, but give you very little real information,” she adds.
Brands that ‘greenwash’ spend more money and time claiming to be ‘green’ through advertising and PR campaigns rather than actually implementing business practises that ACTUALLY minimise environmental impact. Greenwashing often sucks up airtime and misdirects well-intentioned consumers down the wrong path.
RED FLAGS TO LOOK OUT FOR
The easiest way to work out whether brands are greenwashing is by looking for figures that support their claims, rather than taking them at face value. Adds Butalia, “Transparency can be a complicated thing for a customer, but you can always look for concrete information about the claims a brand makes. Companies that are greenwashing often turn to very ambiguous language.”
Some examples of this are:
1. Handmade: Most products made by small businesses in India are handmade, but just because a brand tells you something was ‘handmade with love’ or ‘handmade in India’ doesn’t mean those who made the product by hand were paid their dues or that they worked in humane conditions. “Unless the brand is telling you about the people who made your clothes, or are Fair Trade certified, they are greenwashing.”
2. Vegan Leather: In fashion, the word vegan means products that are made using synthetic alternatives to animal skin/leather or fur. Always look out for alternative materials used to make them while shopping for vegan-leather goods. Unless the brand is revealing the source of the leather, this means nothing: Even if the ‘vegan leather; is PETA-certified! “The vegan leather could well be PU, which is a kind of plastic, and has nothing to do with animals for sure, and comes at the cost of the environment!,” warns Butalia.
3. Zero Waste: This is another favourite word of greenwashing pros! If a brand doesn’t break down how they are zero waste, the words mean nothing and a false claim!
4. Ethical: It’s no secret that clothes from the biggest fashion brands in the world are often made by workers with low wages and poor working conditions. Brands are increasingly publishing more information about their suppliers, but offering less transparency about the actual treatment of their factory workers. There have been instances where factory workers have asked for help in the garments they’ve made for a very popular international fast-fashion retail chain in the not-so-distant past! Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), is an independent labour rights monitoring organization—which provides reports and updates on their investigations into the treatment of factory workers around the world. “If a brand isn’t breaking down how they are being ethical, it really means nothing. It’s that simple. Also, paying your staff the minimum daily wage is not the same as paying them a fair wage!”
5. Industry Standards: If a company is compliant with industry standards, it is only doing the bare minimum. It is required to do that by law. They are not doing anything extraordinary.
6. Natural: Natural materials such as viscose, rayon and bamboo are promoted as eco-friendly, but it only makes a difference if they’re ethically sourced. For example, lakhs of trees are cut down for viscose production every year, which means it causes deforestation. Bamboo only works if it’s organic and not mass produced by dousing it with pesticides/chemicals.
7. Massive Inventory: “If a brand drops new products, has a massive inventory or ONE sustainable range while they keep up the production of another ‘regular’ line of garments/products…. You know it’s greenwashing.”
RESPONSIBLE SHOPPING: HOW WE CAN HELP
The first step towards becoming a responsible shopper is by being mindful of your purchases. Greed versus need is a great place to start! Ask yourself questions before such as—‘do I need another pair of blue denims’? Buy only what you absolutely need. A minimal wardrobe with key pieces will still get you styling creds if you know to wear them in various combos! “Buy second-hand or thrift, where possible,” recommends Butalia. “Sleep over it when you know you’re likely to buy something on impulse. Think about the product’s afterlife and where it’s likely to end up once you’re done with it. Does the brand you’re buying from have a take-back policy? Another sensible, though difficult, move is to delete all your shopping apps, and buy directly from the brands rather than from aggregator platforms, which also charge the brands a hefty commission.” The logic is very clear: We need to buy and dispose less.
THE WAY FORWARD
We need to stop thinking of ourselves as just consumers, and start thinking of ourselves as citizens. “We need to demand accountability from those we’re giving our money to. Has that money been used to pay those who made the products fairly? Has it been used to give you quality products made out of ethically-sourced raw materials? We should also be demanding better legislations for environmental standards,” asserts Butalia.
Look for a brand where sustainability touches every aspect of its business—from headquarters, design and production to shipping, and sales. A brand that is openly transparent and communicative about its steady sustainability journey is always a safe bet. Yes, authentically sustainable brands have higher price points—because “they are using higher-quality raw materials and they are paying fair wages. Also, they don’t have the economies of scale, as they are not mass-producing.” According to Butalia a sustainably-made, quality T-shirt will last thrice as long when compared to a tee from a fast-fashion brand that was made to be used and thrown away. At the end of the day, you get your money’s worth. We also need to value our possessions!
Guys. I’m in no way a doomsday prophet, but maybe we can’t ‘save the earth’ (mostly because we’re the ones that need saving from the capitalists)! However, we sure can change it one small step at a time: By buying things that are meant to last for years, and not weeks! It’s World Environment Day today, and if there’s one thing you’d do going forward: Make sure to not fall for brands that use the climate crisis—as a means of marketing without even attempting to make a fundamental shift in their business model!
[Header Image Credit: Shutterstock]