Laura Egan went from fashion industry insider to sustainability activist. She explains what greenwashing is, and how we can be more conscious consumers…
I have greenwashed.
It’s not something I’m proud of, you won’t find it on my CV and it’s embarrassing just how recently I realised what I had actually done. It was only as I progressed on a journey to learn more about sustainable fashion and discovered the true extent of ethical sleight of hand happening in the industry, that the penny finally dropped. I had done the exact thing that I am now fighting to expose. I had greenwashed.
To put this into context, I’m a fashion designer turned founder of sustainable fashion hub, Studio Minti (@studio_minti). After graduating from Fashion Design in NCAD in 2016, I spent four years working my way through the fashion industry. Starting as an unpaid intern, I then moved to a paid internship (a rare sight for which I have French labour laws to thank) then from assistant designer to designer and finally head designer. All in all, I worked at a total of four luxury and contemporary brands including renowned fashion house Isabel Marant and showed my designs at both London and Paris Fashion Week. I worked hard and played… never. Though highs were plentiful, lows were just as abundant with sleepless nights and 16 hour shifts fuelled by 15 coffees a day. But honestly? As cliché as it sounds, it never felt like a job because it was my passion. Design was my drug, and I will never regret working hard on what I loved.
However this leads me to what I do regret – thinking that I had no voice to fight for what I believed in. And why? I was scared of losing my (very underpaid) job. Lo and behold, my fears suddenly became a reality last March when I found myself unemployed due to Covid-19.
With London-sized bills beginning to pile up and global lockdown throwing a spanner in the works of consumer culture it was a crunch point for my career as a designer in the fashion industry.
Without wanting to sound over privileged or ungrateful, and aside from the initial panic of wondering how I would pay my rent, I actually felt a strange sense of freedom when I lost my job. I had already begun my sustainability journey at that stage and in fact had been struggling with the fashion industry in some way or another since the beginning of my career. Whenever a new story would surface about the disgusting ethics, practices and events occurring in the fashion industry I felt ashamed, and over the years, a significant degree of guilt had built up in my system.
Although I had worked so hard to make a career from my passion (and had been fortunate to live out the dreams of so many fashion students), every time I saw an entire roll of fabric being dumped (“So last season, God forbid we ever use that again”), every time I chopped into a garment sample only to throw it away minutes later (”That didn’t look quite right, let’s try a new one”) or every time I had to pressure the factory workers we demanded so much from (“Step on it with sewing the sample garments! The shoot is in two weeks!”) the guilt would soon follow and my conscience was suffering. Despite all this, when the time came for me to contribute to greenwashing, I was three years deep in this world, prepped and primed. The industry had shown me what it was made of, it didn’t care about my conscience or how I felt, the only thing that mattered was maximising profits and the latest trend was greenwashing.
Every company selling a product, be it clothes or dishwasher tablets, knows that sustainability sells. There’s a growing consumer consciousness of the environmental damage caused by human activity and businesses have been quick to capitalise on this. In fact, according to a Nielsen report, 66% of consumers have stated that they are willing to pay more for sustainable goods. However this is where it gets a little vague, what does being sustainable actually mean? And what does a company need to do to prove that their goods are sustainable? Apparently not a huge amount if the fast fashion industry is anything to go by. “It’s easy to say something is sustainable and not have to prove it,” says Amina Razvi, executive director of Sustainable Apparel Coalition, “It’s not always backed up by real, credible data. It makes it difficult for consumers to make smart choices”. And herein lies the main issue – confusion, leading consumers with good intentions to support the very issue that they are trying to overcome.
Let’s not play the blame game though. Whilst I do advocate for a certain level of consumer responsibility, we can’t hold consumers accountable for being misled by greenwashing tactics. When I was greenwashing, I contributed to blatant lies (again, not something I’m proud of…) and in that situation it would have been incredibly difficult for any consumer to magically know that we weren’t being honest.
At this stage you’re probably wondering what it was that I actually did, so let me fill you in. At the time, I was working for a brand who, along with the rest, had decided to hop on the sustainability train when they realised that it was becoming a big selling point. The company’s transition from not caring at all to suddenly rushing to create as much marketing material as they could about how sustainable they were was immediate and definitely felt wrong, but I was too consumed by the pressure to keep my job to say anything about it.
We updated the website with vague statements like “be the change you want to see in the world” and reached out to the media as a ‘sustainable’ brand. To top it all off though, we produced marketing material centred around how sustainable we were whilst advertising our range of (definitely not sustainably produced) clothes. I wrote some of the content for this publicity material and as I typed “happy workers, happy clothes” for the chapter on how well our garment workers were treated, I couldn’t help but feel immensely guilty.
Nobody working in the brand had ever stepped foot in the factories in China that produced our collections. They had no idea about the conditions the workers were operating in or if they were being paid a fair wage, but hell, it obviously wasn’t a priority. In fact, at one point a factory was owed hundreds of thousands in unpaid work from previous seasons’ production and this company continued to demand that the factory produce garments for them. The factory owner was probably too afraid to lose the prospect of future work to cut them off as a client. Only when it was suggested to include photos of the factory workers “smiling and looking really happy” for the publicity material, did I decide to listen to my instinct and refuse. How could I have so ignorantly asked for those photos, when the only thing we knew about the factory was the name of the owner?
One statement in their marketing was true, they did use a single certified sustainable fabric. But the charity partnerships? Organic cotton? Saving the seas? Planting trees? Donating to save the turtles? All lies. And although I do believe that they had intentions of doing some of these things, and have since done one or two of them, they most certainly were not when we published that material. How is the consumer supposed to know that? It’s virtually impossible.
However, when it comes to fast fashion brands releasing sustainable statements or milking their “organic cotton” collection for all it’s worth, it should be much easier to spot the greenwashing.
If you’re in any doubt here’s a helpful rule of thumb: fast fashion can never be sustainable. It can only operate where exploitation is present somewhere along the supply chain. It is this exploitation that enables the speed of production, the volume of clothing turnover every season and ultimately what keeps the cost of the garments down. Those 500 spanking new, dirt cheap garments that appear every week on the shop floor cannot ever be achieved in an ethical or sustainable way. Don’t be fooled.
Alongside these “eco-friendly” campaigns, fast fashion brands regularly team up with celebrities and influencers to further dig their heels into the realm of sustainability. A recent example that received a less than warm welcome was the H&M x Maisie Williams collaboration. Maisie Williams, known for her starring role in ‘Game of Thrones’ has 10.6 million Instagram followers and was appointed as H&M’s New “Global Sustainability Ambassador” recently. What that role entails, apart from a humongous pay cheque, we are yet to discover.
Despite high street brands often having the most damaging output, I don’t want to put all the blame on them. As I mentioned before, luxury and contemporary fashion brands can also be culpable and are in fact often braver and bolder with their greenwashing statements. A certain self-confidence comes from being a smaller brand, and it’s easier to hide from the general public. Multi-billion dollar retail giants are much more attractive targets than small contemporary brands when it comes to questioning their sustainability practices.
So how can we be more conscious consumers? There are a few things to look out for. If a company is spewing out vague, bait marketing terms about their sustainability practices – like saying they’re “eco-friendly” or“earth-conscious” – and can’t back that up with any real documentation of sustainable practices, they’re most likely greenwashing. A lot of the time, these companies spend more money on the marketing that says they’re sustainable rather than actually being sustainable. Also, if they claim that they’re “doing their part” or are “driven to help save the planet” but don’t have any evidence that sustainability is at the heart of their company, they’re greenwashing. It’s a holistic approach to sustainability that proves a company is really “doing their part” and it’s usually obvious from a brand’s ‘About’ section on their website whether it’s a core value for them or just their ‘thing on the side.’
Transparency is key when trying to spot greenwashing. I see a lot of brands wanting to give the impression of being fully transparent by providing information on where their factories are located, but miss the important information like who their workers are, whether they’re paid a fair wage, what the factory conditions are like, where the fabric comes from… the list goes on. As consumers, we are so accustomed to not thinking about where our clothes come from that when we’re given a nugget of transparency it’s easy for us to grab at it and hold on tight. These companies are determined to fob us off with scraps of information to make us feel better about our purchasing habits. Resist!
Once you start tuning in to greenwashing, you’ll begin to question every fashion campaign you come across. And this is vital for the kind of full industry reform that is desperately required. Change can’t come quick enough. By 2050 the UN predicts that the equivalent of three planets will be needed to sustain our current lifestyle (including our excessive fashion binging) and the British Fashion Council have stated that “our biggest risk is to carry on as we currently operate.”
As consumers, we have the power to change the industry by voting with our wallets or by speaking out. These tactics come with proven success following Remake’s #PayUp campaign, the hashtag that resulted in a $22 billion debt being paid to factories by fast fashion brands that owed it to them. It’s time for us to get reacquainted with clothes, and up close and personal with the brands that sell them to us. We need to start seeing the people behind our clothes – the farmers that grew the fabric, the workers that cut the patterns or sewed the garments, the factory owners with bills and wages to pay, and the designers that shape the styles we wear. When we consider the full life of our clothes, then we can wear them with pride.
I started my career feeling like I had no voice. I never questioned the industry and always thought the feeling of seeing my collection walking down a Fashion Week runway could never be topped. Believe me though, that was nothing compared to the feeling of being able to reclaim my voice to educate and inspire change in the industry I fell out of love with. So next time you see a fashion brand advertising their “conscious cotton collection” or talking about their “happy workers”, learn from my mistakes and don’t hold back. Use your voice and ask them #whomademyclothes?