Fashion greenwashing: What’s in your closet?
If you’ve been shopping in a mall or online for clothing recently, you may have noticed a trend. There’s an increase in fashion that promises it’s more sustainable.
Fashion and its complicated supply chain significantly impact the planet. More consumers are demanding environmentally friendly clothing. Companies are responding with new options.
These new lines are marketed with words like “natural,” “recycled,” “vegan” or “eco-conscious.” While some of these claims are true and there are companies that are doing the right thing, experts say there are others that are not. It’s tough for consumers to tell the difference.
“The word ‘sustainable’ is such a confusing term because it can mean so many different things,” says Kelly Drennan, the founding executive director of Fashion Takes Action, a Canadian non-profit.
For more than 16 years, Drennan has worked to improve the standard of fashion sustainability in Canada. She says she’s seen it all, including companies greenwashing their way into the closets of Canadians.
“It’s the Wild West really in terms of what claims are being made and what companies are getting away with,” Drennan told Global News’ The New Reality.
“They’re actually misleading the consumer into thinking that those products are made sustainably by using those kinds of words and making the assumption that the consumer does not know any better and doesn’t have the time to actually do the research.”
In a fast-paced society, people move quickly through purchases in-store and online. Verifying the validity of sustainability claims in a complicated industry can take time, and people often end up buying a product because they think they’re doing something better for the planet.
“Like in anything, there are good actors and there are bad actors,” Drennan says.
She explains there are brands “doing it properly” and they have the certifications to back up those claims or they’re being transparent. “They’ll allow you sort of behind the scenes … so that you can actually get in there and see if what they’re saying is legitimate. And then you’ve got the brands that are jumping on the bandwagon and taking advantage of the consumer.”
The fashion industry and its supply chain are some of the most polluting and problematic for the planet. A 2019 Deloitte study showed plastics from textiles make up the third-largest category of plastic waste in Canadian landfills.
“You’ve got the synthetics, the polyester, nylon, acrylic, spandex — that’s plastic. So, when it is in the landfill, it’s never going to biodegrade,” Drennan says.
“We really need to slow down our consumption. We buy too much stuff. We buy 60 per cent more clothes today than we did 20 years ago. We keep our clothes for half as long.”
Some consumers are paying attention. Lyst, a fashion technology company, analyzes shopper behaviour. It found searches for sustainable fashion in Canada rose by 37 per cent in 2020.
The increase in people wanting to shop responsibly, means companies who are truly dedicated to sustainable practices have to figure out how to set themselves apart.
On a sunny, spring day in Toronto’s west end Junction neighbourhood, Kristi Soomer and her staff photograph her brand’s latest collection in its bright, airy studio.
Soomer is the founder and CEO of Encircled, which describes itself as a “sustainable clothing brand dedicated to ethical clothing that is comfortable, travel-friendly and made in Canada.”
She started the company in 2012 in response to her frustration with an overflowing suitcase while packing for a work trip in a previous role. She wanted fewer, quality items.
Four years after launching Encircled, Soomer wanted to set the brand apart from others making sustainability claims.
She applied to B Corporation for a private certification. It examines if a business is meeting standards in social and environmental performance as well as providing full transparency. It was an intense, two-year look into every aspect of Encircled, all at Soomer’s expense.
“Having that third-party audit was really important to showing that we are actually doing what we’re saying we’re doing,” says Soomer, who recalls seeing more greenwashing emerge in the fashion industry in 2016.
“I was starting to feel a lot more pressure around that, and I could see that sustainability … was becoming a challenge for us to separate ourselves from those that were greenwashing.”
Recently re-certified by B Corp, Encircled is one of a small number of companies with the designation in Canadian apparel. For Soomer, sustainability goes beyond the clothes it makes and sells.
“As a B Corp we’re certified in our bylaws to put people and the planet above profits,” she says.
“So, the paper we’re printing on, the cleaning products we use in our office — every detail around our business model has to be sustainable from how we pay our employees, to how we pay our suppliers, to how we interact with them.”
Part of the issue with confirming sustainability claims is the complex labyrinth of the fashion supply chain. Tracing fabric, from raw materials to end-of-life disposal is a tall task, something Soomer is constantly learning about.
“When I first started in the fashion industry, I assumed there was just like … a bucket of bad fabrics that you don’t use and … good fabrics that you do use. And in my mind I was like, linen must be over here and polyester is over here. And that’s just the end of it. But it’s actually more of a continuum,” she says.
Fabric considerations are part of Soomer’s work as Encircled is choosing to grow its business locally. It designs in-house, knits half of its fabric in Toronto, and everything is sewn within a 60-kilometre radius of its studio.
Unlike many fashion and fast fashion brands that have new styles monthly, even weekly, Encircled produces in season, with a short turnaround for production, thanks to its local sewing and dyeing partners. But all these considerations come with a higher price, something Soomer says is the number one question from customers.
“A lot of people will look at sustainable fashion and say it’s more expensive to buy this shirt. And it absolutely is because of our supply chain and because of our labour practices, because of the time it takes to design it and the scale that we have as a brand,” Soomer says.
“It’s this idea that you buy, like, 20 dresses for $10 that you wear once and then you toss them. It’s not sustainable for us as a planet.”
Soomer and the staff at Encircled have an ongoing conversation with its consumer base about sustainability and its practices.
When a shopper purchases an item through Encircled’s online store, the transaction triggers an email with tips on how to best care for the item for longevity. And while price is the number one sticking point for most potential buyers, Soomer says longtime supporters of Encircled are quick to respond on social media posts to explain why it’s worth it to spend more upfront on an item made to last.
“We take customers along this journey of education and then we also share where stuff is made and how it’s made and when they’re purchasing from us, what that means to our community and to us as a brand as well.”
At Fashion Takes Action, education is a key component of Drennan’s work. To date, thousands of companies have enlisted the non-profit’s help.
“We don’t work with just the industries — people who make and sell clothes — we also work with the people who buy it, wear it, care for it, and eventually dispose of it,” says Drennan. “And if we’re talking about changing a system, you have to work with…every single stakeholder who is a part of that system.”
While deceptive and misleading marketing is illegal in Canada, Drennan wants the government to step up to protect consumers.
“There are some countries where there are more laws in place now, anti-greenwashing laws, transparency laws, which really protect the consumer at the end of the day,” she says.
For now, brands and nonprofits are doing most of the educating within their customer base.
“It’s really the industry’s responsibility,” Drennan says.
“Public access to education and knowing how our products are being made, where they’re being made and what impact they have on people and planet is something that the government really should care more about.”
Bob Kirke is the executive director of the Canadian Apparel Federation, the industry association representing a wide range of clothing and apparel manufacturing companies in Canada.
Kirke sat down with The New Reality in Ottawa to discuss greenwashing in fashion and how consumers are faced with an increasing number of sustainable fashion marketing claims.
Kirke says there are clothing companies making huge efforts to address different parts of the supply chain, taking on a complicated challenge, but other companies can be more transparent with consumers about their practices.
“Whose responsibility is it ultimately? I think companies need to explain themselves rather than just having a tagline or a simple statement, ‘we’re green,’” Kirke says. “What is it? What does it mean for you?”
Kirke says some companies are now “green hushing,” choosing not to publicize sustainability efforts or claims at all, which is in line with the federation’s recommendations to members to be “guarded” in what they say.
“To make those kinds of claims is easy. So that’s why I think a lot of people are sort of pulling back in larger companies in particular because they’re worried about enforcement and they realize how complicated their supply chain is all over the world, multiple factories, multiple suppliers,” he says.
“So essentially, it’s being called green hushing and it is caution, they’re still doing all the [positive] things that they’re doing.”
To tackle green claims overall the European Commission recently proposed a new law to hold companies accountable, including in fashion. The U.K. is also cracking down on fashion greenwashing, launching investigations into large fast fashion companies making sustainability claims.
In Canada, Kirke says the government can provide guidance and clarity to the industry under the laws that already exist, including the Competition Act, the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act, as well as the Textile Labelling Act.
“We don’t need to change all our laws. We just need to find a way that works for the Competition Bureau and for industry and ultimately for consumers,” Kirke says. “But the one thing I would say is that the Competition Bureau has been reluctant to take that up. They have other priorities, and that’s fine, but I would say it’s going to be helpful.”
Global News reached out to the Competition Bureau to see if it plans to increase enforcement of greenwashing in fashion. The bureau declined an on-camera interview and did not respond to written questions and numerous follow-up requests by our deadline.
Until there is an incentive to change, through regulation or enforcement, Drennan believes greenwashing will continue and consumers will potentially be misled.
It’s keeping her busy.
Fashion Takes Action is also reaching people at a young age. It has presented programming, including a course on how to spot greenwashing in fashion, to more than 32,000 school-aged kids.
Drennan says the organization has had success in terms of waking up young people’s minds and curiosities and instilling them with a passion to know more, to buy better and to do better. “At the end of the day, it is probably the most rewarding out of all of the work that we do.”
According to Drennan, the most sustainable item is the one you already have in your closet.
Fashion is sometimes viewed as a superficial or exclusive industry, but ultimately, clothing is unifying and it impacts us all.
“Fashion is something that we all can relate to,” Drennan says. “We don’t all drive cars or own homes, we all wear clothes. We get up every day and we put on clothes.”