The megatrend of sustainability has been on the rise for several years now, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic. Many clothing brands, such as Patagonia, have embraced company-wide changes in order to minimize their carbon footprint against the growing threat of climate change.
Despite a number of companies working to improve their own environmental impact, there are others choosing instead to grow their profits under the guise of sustainability without actually making any substantial changes. This concept, also known as greenwashing, is the exaggeration of a brand's environmental practices in order to appear more sustainable than their actual business dealings.
Fast fashion brands have fallen under major scrutiny in regard to greenwashing for both their business models and their marketing that disguises it. Although for some, fast fashion may be the only option in finding affordable and trendy clothing, it's important to recognize the harm that misleading marketing campaigns have on the push for sustainability as a whole.
We assembled a list of five fast fashion brands that are guilty of greenwashing, and how their practices don't match up with their marketing.
If the rest of the brands on this list are fast fashion, then Shein is fastest fashion. Known for their incredible speed in producing new clothing at virtually unbeatable prices, Shein has permeated social media with excessive "hauls" of cheap, low quality clothing. According to the Let's Do It Foundation, the brand received a 0 rating out of 20 from the Fashion Transparency Index, a tool that grades fashion brands on their sustainability and ethical practices.
Their website is fraught with buzzwords associated with greenwashing, including phrases like "reducing supply chain waste" and "modern production techniques." The brand claims to be a vegan company, which is true as they do not use any animal products, but their usage of environmentally damaging synthetic materials negates any "cruelty free" language used. We could write an entire article on just Shein's greenwashing alone, which doesn't even include the brand's documented cases of human rights violations against their workers.
The Higg Index is a measurement system used by large retail brands to track their environmental, social, and ethical business practices on a large scale, and this tool is what exposed H&M for participating in greenwashing campaigns. This tool relies on self-reporting, and an investigation revealed that the clothing brand was reporting inaccurate and inflated numbers, misleading consumers and stakeholders under the guise of transparency.
Since the explosive investigation unearthed the truth behind their business model, the brand has taken steps to correct their lack of honesty with customers. Goals laid out by H&M include 100% renewable electricity in their manufacturing facilities by 2030 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. Despite these efforts, the company received a C rating (mediocre) from the Impakter Index, another sustainability watchdog for the fashion industry. The road for H&M to combat their recent scandal is long, but it appears as if steps are being taken to correct their greenwashing mishap.
Source: The Central Trend
3. Princess Polly
It's nearly impossible to open TikTok or Instagram without seeing either an ad from the brand, or an influencer's unboxing video of the brand's trendy pieces. With a range of over 7,000 pieces of their website, a meager 10% makes up their "sustainable" line. The brand touts their lower impact garments made of recycled synthetic materials, but does not discuss the shedding of microplastics generated from washing those synthetic materials to be reused.
Princess Polly has set several goals in regard to sustainability, such as transitioning to completely vegan apparel by 2023 and reaching a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2025. Although some improvement is being made by the fast-fashion retailer to adopt a more sustainable business model, the majority of their sustainable campaign is built on the back of a good marketing team.
Source: Princess Polly Blog
Overconsumption of goods remains a major problem within the fashion industry, and Zara is one of their largest perpetuators. The brand launched a limited-edition collection in 2022, becoming the first major retail brand utilize technology that captures carbon emissions to be converted into polyester. Despite this, they still received a D rating (insufficient) from the Impakter Index. When a closer look was taken at these claims, it was revealed that only 20% of the collection's materials was produced using this technology.
Zara is known as the original fast fashion brand, rapidly producing over 12,000 unique designs per year, according to Elizabeth Segran's article in Fast Company. By establishing the problematic fast fashion model we see in use today, Zara's brand language contributes to the issue of overconsumption and, by extension, the masses of synthetically produced clothing discarded in landfills. Programs like Zara Pre-Owned, which allows customers to resell, repair, or donate clothing purchased from the brand, is an attempt at creating a more sustainable model; but more action needs to be taken by the retail giant.
Last year, ASOS quietly removed the "Responsible Edit" area of their website after an investigation into the brand's environmental practices was announced. Cited by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) for utilizing vague language that could mislead consumers about their commitments to sustainability, the retailer took down the page in response. The investigation is still ongoing, with the brand releasing a commitment on their website to use 100% recycled or sustainable materials by 2030. The CMA has voiced their readiness to take the brand to court if any wrongdoing is uncovered in the investigation.
Although ASOS has shared limited plans to improve their sustainability, the action being taken against them by a large watchdog organization indicates the severity of the claims made by the brand. However, their willingness to cooperate with the investigation shows that the potential for positive change in the brand's messaging and actions could be fast-approaching.
Source: Not What it Seams
Greenwashing is an unethical practice that gives massive retailers the ability to overcharge clothing under misleading claims of environmental friendliness and sustainability. As consumers look for more ethical producers of clothing to limit their own carbon footprint, lack of transparency from fast fashion retailers only exacerbates the problem of excessive waste and consumption in the fashion industry. Watchdog organizations are working to hold greenwashing brands accountable for their actions, but it's up to us as consumers to see through performative campaigns from fast fashion retailers and give our hard-earned dollars to brands who practice what they preach.