The fashion industry’s carbon footprint outweighs that of international flights and shopping combined, cites The State of Fashion 2020, a report conducted by McKinsey and BOF, which also mentions that fashion accounts for 20-35% of the microplastic that flows into the ocean. Add to this a statistic revealed in the Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2019 Update, that only 7% of consumers surveyed use sustainability as their most important decision-making criteria, and we have a rather dire state of affairs.
How can this improve, and in what ways do we ensure we are supporting authentically sustainable brands? Is it possible to avoid being misled by “greenwashing” in the process (a term referring to misleading marketing and false claims that suggest brands are doing more for the environment than what they actually are)?
“The issue with sustainability is that it doesn’t have a straightforward definition,” says Araceli Gallego, Fashion Revolution Country Coordinator for UAE and a prominent voice on sustainability in the industry. “Now that people are showing more care for the environment, some companies are greenwashing to attract them, when, in reality, they have not changed much.”
Deceptive moves include launching sustainable capsule collections when the rest of a brand’s production line remains pollutant and wasteful, or claiming to protect the environment by using natural fibers, while a label has these garments made in factories with bad working conditions. Sometimes brands spend more money on marketing themselves as “good for people and the planet” than they do on implementing the actions related to such promises.
Gallego, who co-founded Goshopia, which provides an online retail platform for sustainable fashion brands, as well as the monthly Sustainable Souk in Dubai, says she is noticing more independent local designers starting to implement real changes to transform their brands to be environmentally friendly or socially responsible. But she admits that such changes take time. “Sustainability is a journey,” she says, “both for consumers to understand more and make wiser purchasing decisions, and for brands to locate new materials or work with certified factories, for example.”
Consumers should be looking for numbers, rather than words. Many brands that tout themselves as “eco-friendly” or “sustainably produced” have no statistics or facts to back up their claims.
“Fashion is suffering what food suffered in the past,” says Gallego. “A misuse, overuse and abuse of terms such as bio, organic and natural. The only way you can know what is on your plate or in your clothes is to read the labels. Not the marketing labels, but the real labels – the ingredients and materials. And to ask where and how things are produced.”
If a brand says that its products are “100% organic cotton” or “cruelty-free,” it is important to check whether this has been certified by credible sources (although smaller brands are often hindered from obtaining such accreditation due to the high costs). And, when it comes to assuming the environmental benefits of a natural material such as bamboo, Gallego advises caution. “The plant regenerates quickly, but processing the fiber requires a lot of water and chemicals. What could make it sustainable would be things such as recycling the water, changing those chemicals for more eco-friendly options and being conscious about what is done with the waste produced.”
Whether big or small, any brand honestly practicing what it preaches should avail itself to answer anyone curious about its processes. Says Gallego, “There should be transparency in the whole supply chain.”