Hey you! Happy that you are here (again). By now you probably know that we feel it is our responsibility not only to offer you the good alternative on clothing but also widen your knowledge on the industry and the Why of things. We believe that changing the wardrobe is nothing without changing the mindset towards it.
The fashion industry holds a lot of problems. In the previous blog-post, Yann summed up the wide picture of whats going wrong. If you haven’t read it and you are in the beginning of your journey of awareness around fashion, go give it a read. Because from now on we will zoom in on all the specific things concerning the fashion industry and sustainability. In general we can say that the fashion industry and sustainability do not go hand in hand. They are closer to being each others opposites. As Clara Vuletich puts it at TedxSydney: ‘fashion is sexy, addictive, exclusive and very fast-moving, sustainability on the other hand is about slowness, care, flourishing and responsibility’. Very true.
She is speaking of fashion, not even of fast fashion, which holds a world of difference. Before getting into the topic of this blog post, greenwashing, let’s elaborate on the term fast fashion. As it is so often used but in contrast of what you might expect it doesn’t get its name from the speed in which we buy and throw out clothes. The term fast fashion actually refers to the very high pace in which fashion companies are able to jump onto trends. The ones that have a very short production time and thus can put new trends into the stores in the blink of an eye. By shortening the process of design, produce, and distribute, they literally push the new collections through the industry. Which makes that every time you enter the store, you will find something new. What makes you come back more often, and so on and on. ZARA is one example and by now has 52 micro-seasons in a year. They also produce 1.250.000 pieces of clothing per day. Makes 450.000.000 per year. Which makes ZARA sort of the biggest of all.
So production speed does not equal buy / wearing out speed. Bueno, greenwashing. We point out the problems of the industry and do not want to blame specific groups. It isn’t about fingerpointing and it certainly won’t get us anywhere further with this troubling system. Why not? Because actually; everybody is to blame. Consumers blame brands for not paying their workers, brands put the low price on consumers as that is all they want to pay for clothes, activists blame brands for following this business model that prioritizes profit, and governments mostly just watch all of it happen. Looking for the one to blame will only distract us from unclogging the drain.
If we want to make things right, it is about how to turn things around. And that (also) starts with you. In this big world, where big money flows, we tend to feel small being just an individual. But we have the power of vote right in our wallets. You might think of yourself as a person not interested in politics. Maybe not even a believer of politics. But actually, everything you do is politics. Everything you think, say and value. Every penny you own and spend is a contribution to maintaining one or the other. See how that brings importance to what you buy and who from?
What is greenwashing
Greenwashing has nothing to do with eco-friendly laundry. On the contrary; when a company or brand acts like their product or way of doing business is sustainable, while it actually is not, that is greenwashing. By pouring a sweet green sauce over already existing, mostly far from sustainable practices, launching products or new collections that are ‘green’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘sustainable’, ‘natural’, ‘conscious, ‘organic’ or any other term that makes them come across caring; changing into green or brown packaging, offering climate neutral shipping only during a campaign, advertising with a few vegan products, or as we are focusing on fashion: placing recycling bins in their stores. Sadly, most of the time it’s just to score points and win over the growing group of consumers that does care about the wellbeing of our planet and her inhabitants. This group is growing, you know it, we love it.
But they know it too
We are more aware of the environment as something important and something that we influence with our daily life and choices. We feel more and more responsible for our output and brands know this too. Sustainability became a marketing tool.
We are humans. With a brain and psyche that has been studied to the fullest. Marketeers know how to make us buy things and they of course use that to make us do so. Sustainability became a thing that we care about, so product makers start to compete in this. If you have a shell full of the same kind of products, you will probably feel better about yourself if you choose the most conscious one. But that green packaging or ‘natural’ sticker is just to catch your eye. That the packaging says it a green option, unfortunately doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. But it does trigger our primal response. So, we have to make sure that we don’t immediately go with our first response and bring in the awareness of second thought.
Why can they do this?
There are no regulations for the usage of terms like natural, green, eco-friendly. If you want to put it on your product, you can.
Greenwashing in the fashion industry
The recycling bin. Right now there are a lot of fashion brands advertising with a recycling program. They put recycling bins in their stores, make commercials about it and even offer you a discount for your next purchase when you hand in old garments. H&M is doing this very well. If you see the commercials they made for it, you just fall for it. I mean..
But now. Knowing it is all trick, personally, it makes me a little nauseous. Of course it is great that they raise environmental awareness and they do give you a scent of feeling responsible for your waste. But truly, its one big lie.
Because recycling is n o t sustainable
At least not in the current fast fashion circuit. Only 1 percent of the clothes that get recycled actually get recycled in the literal sense of the word. Meaning that only one percent of old garment will come back in the shape of new clothing. 1 percent! One. Percent.
That’s not really what the pretty advertisement makes you believe, is it?
It takes 12 years to recycle what they sell in 48 hours, says Claudia Marseilles in that same episode of CBC’s Marketplace, linked to above. The fast fashion retailers’ business model is the problem. They are making too much, they are selling it too cheap and it is all disposable clothing. Doing a bit of recycling is a scheme act to distract attention making sure that they don’t have to change the way they are doing things now.
Clothing deficit myth
Author Elizabeth L. Cline speaks of The Clothing Deficit Myth as a term for the fact that we think that the clothes we put in these recycling bins or donation boxes go to poor people desperately in need of the clothes we don’t like to wear anymore. And that therefore it is a very good deed to hand in our under valued garments. We might even feel like buying new clothes and handing in the old ones, is a way of taking care of less fortunate. But that is only partly happening.
What happens to the textiles that you put in these recycling bins?
The bin owners sell them. A part of it goes to the charity stores you have in your neighborhood. But as there are way more old clothes handed in than there are people that need them, or stores that can sell them, most of it gets shipped off overseas and then still ends up in landfill. How?
Due to how these clothes are made, they are a jumble of all different kind of materials to keep the costs as low as possible. Many include synthetic fibers and all the plastic that is in there makes it utterly impossible to separate waste from fiber. And even if it would work out, cotton and wool really lose quality when reused so it isn’t that appealing either. They call this scramble of materials mixed blends. But we can write a full story on that alone later.
The gathered clothes get sorted, as said a part of the usable ones go to the charity stores, the torn ones get shredded and are sold like chunks of fabric-shred to companies that turn it into useful things like isolation material or, for example here in the Netherlands there is a company making filling for punchbags out of it. What didn’t go to the stores and ins’t shred either is wrapped to bunches of clothes and shipped overseas. Where a part of all these clothes goes to the local marketplaces. But as the quality is so low, they can’t even sell it to the people there. So most of all that shipped off garment is piled up and burned, for example on the parking lot behind that local marketplace in Kenia. So.. They’ll make sure its gets what it deserves? “The only thing we will not do, is waste it”?
Why this is bad
These greenwashing tricks lead to; you feeling good about a purchase. They encourage you that way to keep on buying and maybe even buy more clothes than you else wise would have. It is by definition unsustainable! They make you feel like they are taking care of the problematic outsourcing they have so that you can continue consuming their products without them truly having to change what they are doing. They are making up for it, right?
So while you feel like you are spending your money on change, actually nothing changes on the fact that the fashion industry is the 10th most poluting industry in the world when it comes to carbon emissions. The fourth biggest water polluter and the second largest in putting plastic in the ocean.
And not only that, because with the rise of all the sustainability claims, it doesn’t add to the growth of trust we have towards brands. The harder it gets to tell the difference between truly good practice or marketing playing games, the less we feel encouraged to pay attention and put effort in choosing wisely. If trust is lost, then where are we?
An other example
Next to their recycling program, H&M also has the H&M Conscious line. A good example of a fast fashion brand that is trying to enter the domain of sustainable fashion. But like I said above, you can imagine that adding a ‘a bit more sustainable part’ to a business that is still aiming to grow bigger, faster, isn’t really transformative.
Actually, this conscious collection isn’t much more conscious than the pieces of clothing being made out of different material than the normal collection. The way it is produced, in the poor working conditions for the garment workers, at the same speed, in the same far outsourced places, with thus practically the same negative impact on environment, it is all the same. Sara Dubbeldam from the blog When Sara Smiles got invited to the launch of a new H&M conscious collection last year and wrote an article on how she noticed that the grade of sustainability is only measured by the usage of sustainable materials. Nothing more than that. They spoke about using organic cotton while the cotton they use is BCI, not organic. Which stands for Better Cotton Initiative. And clothes aren’t made 100% out of it but for around 20%. Which of course is already a great improvement.
In general, this blog by now looks like a big rant on H&M as it is about addressing greenwashing. But the fact that all the examples I have are H&M and non ZARA, Boohoo, Adidas, Super Nova, New Look, or whatever brand you can think of, is because H&M is actually almost the only one (truly) trying.
When it comes to seeing through greenwashing, transparency is a big one. When a brand advertises with products that are green or eco-friendly without elaborating in any kind of way how that is so, you can tell its an empty promise. Check out online how much you can really get to know about the product, the company and their production process. It takes some time, we know. Luckily, since five years there is the Fashion Transparency Index, a tool that helps us oversee how fashion brands are doing on sustainability and their general transparency of their processes.
Which is very good, and very welcome, especially because being transparent on the process is maybe even of bigger importance than already being completely sustainable. Because it is difficult. The industry flows over a lot of different terrains and for full transparency, every part of the chain needs to be open to you as a company too. We struggle with this as well. So yeah, the Transparency Index, so good now all global companies are trying to come across more sustainable, and with that create this facade that makes consumers tumble on their feet. Because who is truly doing good and who is just holding up a curtain? Someone once said to me; when people don’t know what to believe anymore, they are open to believing just anything you tell them. And that is just truth.
Hopefully this kind of shined a light on what is behind this, all of the sudden, thriving-on-sustainability capitalist world. Be aware of the tricks people play on you, not to blame yourself for being vulnerable to it, we are humans and the marketing world knows our weak spots. But with rising awareness, change starts.
If something is too cheap to be sustainable, ask questions. Do your research. Find out yourself. Maybe in the meantime realize that you actually don’t need the thing you wanted to buy. When you buy less, you save money to spend a bit more on something that is in line with your values. And that’s just win, win because reducing is better than recycling, and then money flows where intentions are right. Use your money wisely. Because every day you vote with your wallet. If we want things to change, we have to contribute to that change. Else wise we can just wait our lifetimes.