It’s no secret that the number of self-proclaimed sustainable fashion brands has increased in recent years. More and more conventional fashion brands, especially fast fashion labels such as H&M, ZARA, C&A, are trying to capitalize on the growing consumer interest. False claims are used in marketing to pretend sustainability, social responsibility or climate protection. Brands can freely use terms like “sustainable,” “eco-friendly” and “organic” because there are no global sustainability guidelines yet. So-called “greenwashing” has literally become a fashion hype! But what are the negative effects and consequences of greenwashing in the fashion industry? And how does it affect consumers, ethical journalism and small brands?

Lack Of Consumer Trust

There are still no guidelines in the fashion and textile industry. And there are only a few internationally recognized seals of approval and certificates such as GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), which indicate that specific textiles are produced under ecological and social criteria along the entire textile supply chain, from seed to end product. Most labels only identify sustainable raw materials without including social standards. Ensuring full transparency is often not possible in the fashion industry, as the production chain is very long and often involves subcontractors. Some fashion brands falsely declare conventional cotton as “organic”.

Consumers do not know which products are truly sustainable, which fabrics must be certified, and which certifications meet which standards. Customers are overwhelmed by the flood of information and no longer have any orientation. In addition, they do not have enough time to deal with this complex topic. As a result, consumers lose trust.

Journalism Requires Expertise

Consumers are not the only ones who need clear information. But who is responsible for establishing uniform guidelines if politicians do not? Media only started to critically examine fast fashion and explain greenwashing a few years ago. The New York Times and The Guardian were the first to start publishing well-researched critics. Consumers hoped to finally find some direction and be guided by opinions. But greenwashing is becoming more and more imaginative.

Getting honest information is becoming more difficult and available information is often insufficient to understand a fashion brand’s sustainability practices. PR agents and marketing people are not fashion industry experts and often don’t know what information they are giving to journalists. Media have a harder time doing ethical journalism without a foundation of fact-checked information. Journalists and bloggers need to be knowledgeable about sustainability or work closely with experts. Experts are rare and expensive. Expert journalism is more important than ever.

Small Brands Need To Fight Even Harder

Millennials wanted to change the world, quit their jobs and started their own small value-driven fashion labels. But small labels hardly stand a chance against big companies because they have not yet set up their distribution as they have no money for marketing and staff. In turn, fast fashion giants like H&M have been able to spend the budget on big influencers and giant campaigns in Times Square, attracting attention with their supposed “Conscious Collection.” Many end consumers still think: ‘Why spend more money when you can get the same “sustainable” product for a small price with the H&M Conscious Collection’. The consequence: they must invest even more budget to prove trustworthiness. For small labels, this means continuing to stay afloat with the hope of change. Thousands of small fashion labels have already had to give up their existence, but more on that in the next article.

Sustainability Is Becoming More And More Expensive

Not only marketing costs increase the operating expenses but also raw materials become more expensive. This in turn affects the final price for customers. Sustainable fashion is thus not becoming accessible to everyone. The huge price increase triggers the danger that consumers are more likely to buy cheap greenwashing fashion. This means we are going around in circles that are not sustainable.

What Is The Solution When Values And Research Are Not Enough?

The fact is: consumers must have the right to understand what they are consuming. Rating apps like Good on you rate thousands of brands based on publicly researchable information. But how can they rate brands when the real problem is lack of transparency and traceability? More and more tech companies like Retraced try to generate transparency in the supply chain with expensive services. It often fails because of the inconsistent language conveyed to the end consumer. Then there’s the Butterfly Mark, a brand certification focused exclusively on the luxury segment.

The correct solution would be to create global guidelines that every fashion company must adhere to, similar to the EU Food Regulation. The EU Commission is working on the so-called ‘initiative on green claims’, which will be published later this year. Companies making ‘green claims’ should substantiate them using a standard methodology to assess their impact on the environment.

In any case, consumers must be informed and educated, and journalists must expose greenwashing, share opinions and motivate people to demonstrate to put pressure on policymakers. It is more important than ever that countries in the Global North have a common goal and work together to create a truly circular fashion economy.