The rise of the conscious consumer has caused some fashion brands to tout themselves as “sustainable”, “eco-conscious” or “green” when in reality many are just jumping on the bandwagon with unfounded claims of greenwashing.

The term “greenwashing” was first coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in the 1980s to describe companies that overstated the environmental or ethical benefits of their products and services. Or, as an article on the Good On You website puts it, “greenwashing is the use of marketing to portray an organization’s products, activities or policies as environmentally friendly when they are not.”

Local Designers and Sustainable Practices

New Zealand isn’t immune to our own greenwashing examples. In 2018, retailer World was exposed by The Spinoff for selling clothes that they claimed were NZ Made when they were, in fact, made in Bangladesh.

However, the local fashion scene is showing strong promise for a genuine move forward. Long-life fashion took centre stage at this year’s New Zealand Fashion Week and a new wave of local designers are taking a determined stand against greenwashing.

Benjamin Alexander, Maggie Hewitt of Maggie Marilyn and James Dobson of Jimmy D are practising real ethical and sustainable standards in the manufacturing of their garments. We spoke to them about their thoughts around greenwashing, the importance of transparency and what we as consumers can do to help.

How to Detect Greenwashing

Maggie Hewitt believes that there has been a shift in thought and consumer shopping habits. “If you, as a designer, aren’t involving yourself in the sustainability conversation you’ll become irrelevant,” she told TLFB.

While many fashion brands are making moves into what seem to be more ethical and sustainable directions in response to demands from more conscious consumers, half of the industry has yet to take action and overall progress is too slow. Therefore, it’s important to determine the difference between genuine action and outright greenwashing.

Spotting false sustainability claims may not be as hard as you think — there are tell-tale signs that a brands’ clothing may not live up to its claims.

1. Check the Brand’s DNA

To start with, be critical and find out what the main DNA of the brand is. What are the core values of the brand? What’s going on behind the advertising claims and green hangtags?

For Benjamin Alexander, sustainability is the DNA of his brand — and himself personally. “It’s second nature and something we haven’t really had to think about or integrate into the brand,” Alexander told TLFB. “It’s what I’ve always done.”

2. Check the Fabrics

Second, check the care label on the inside of the garment to make sure the piece you’re buying is actually sustainable and/or ethical. If you spot synthetic materials like polyester, nylon and acrylic, you know the chances are higher that you’re looking at un-sustainable clothing. Instead, look for materials like organic cotton, hemp and other materials with certifications such as Global Organic Textile Standards for the organic fabrics, Lenzing Modal and Tencel. If you are going for inorganic fibres such as polyester, it’s a good idea to verify it has been recycled.

“In our last collection, 87% of our fabrics are entirely natural fibres (not mixed with any spandex, polyester etc.) which means they are biodegradable,” designer Jimmy D told TLFB. “But, we do have more work to do to make sure these are all 100% free of toxins from the dying and the manufacturing process (even organic cotton can be dyed with inorganic dyes).”

3. Check the Production

Third, look at the brand’s overall production practices. If they are producing as many garments as most fast fashion major polluters do, their clothes are unlikely to be truly sustainable.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The biggest sources of waste in fashion are the textile waste at the production stage and the surplus of clothing being produced. Sustainable fashion experts advocate abstaining from buying fast fashion, promoting clothing swaps and shopping in thrift stores — so you can minimise your environmental impact while updating your wardrobe.

When you do buy new, make sure it’s made by skilled workers, in good conditions. The hope is that greater transparency in supply chains will lead to an end to sweatshops and unsustainable fashion practices.

Benjamin Alexander believes designers need to focus on “transparency and being open and honest about where your fabrics are from, where they’re sourced. And if it’s not good, being honest about what you’re going to do and improvements you are going to make.”

To be considered genuinely sustainable, brands may need to entirely transform every aspect of their businesses. The leadership forum Global Fashion Agenda has identified eight “crucial sustainability priorities” that includes complete transparency throughout the supply chain, safeguarding workers’ rights, becoming more energy-efficient and reusing textiles.

Ultimately, the “cooler” sustainability becomes, the more fast-fashion giants will greenwash themselves. It’s up to consumers to be savvier with their purchase power and support companies that are truly tackling environmental and ethical issues. Fundamentally, the most environmentally-conscious clothes shopping you can do isn’t necessarily about whom you buy from, but how long and how much you’ll wear what you buy.

As Benjamin Alexander says, “Don’t fucking greenwash. Don’t say this and that just because it’s cool.” Putting words into practice, caring about our consumer behaviour and how it forms part of the bigger picture is necessary for each of us in the fight for a more sustainable future.

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