Greenwashing in fashion: what it is and how to spot it

Paulina Kulczycki

There’s a growing awareness of the nefarious impact of the fashion industry on Earth. It's the second largest polluter (behind the oil industry), and responsible for disastrous effects on people, animals, nature and climate change. So it's no surprise that sustainability has become such a central topic for fashion brands that are finding themselves under more scrutiny. But unfortunately, not all sustainability efforts are made equal. With the ever increasing demand for conscious fashion, greenwashing is also on the rise. Now, what exactly is greenwashing in fashion anyway and how to spot it? We at SANVT give tips on how you can buy fashion in a sustainable way, and how to avoid falling for greenwashing.

Before we dive into details, here's an overview of how to spot greenwashing in fashion:

  • Selling minimal changes as big transformations
  • Presenting obvious features as a sign of quality
  • Exploiting ambiguities


What is greenwashing?

Let's start from scratch: the term "greenwashing" was created in the 1980s by the environmentalist Jay Westerveld. In one of his essays, he drew attention to the fact that the only sustainability initiative taken in many hotels was a note asking hotel guests to use their towels more than once. This was meant to save laundry and, subsequently, save water. Westerveld noticed that despite this seemingly sustainable initiative, no other efforts were made by these hotels to become more environmentally friendly.

This is how the word "greenwashing" came into being, as a term for companies that try to pretend to be more environmentally friendly than they actually are. This 'greenwashing' allows firms to project a sustainable image to the public without having to take the necessary steps to be any more sustainable. It's so common now that the term has become widely used – including in the fashion industry.

Greenwashing allows fast fashion to be marketed – aka greenwashed – as sustainable through seemingly ecological branding and targeted PR strategy. How is that even legally possible, you ask? It’s all made possible by legal loopholes and unprotected terms! Sometimes, only one sustainable material or environmentally friendly step in the entire production chain is enough to allow a product to be sold as "conscious fashion."

In fact, vague words with no legal definition like "conscious" or "natural" are often used to give the impression of a sustainable product. Greenwashing not only affects products and their production but even entire corporate strategies. You can read about what makes a fashion brand truly sustainable here.

How to spot greenwashing?

To avoid falling for the greenwashing campaigns of large fashion corporations, we have listed a few of the most common strategies. You can spot greenwashing at a glance with the following tips:

Selling minimal changes as big transformations

A popular method of greenwashing is to promote minimal changes as major shifts. After all, large corporations are not interested in protecting the environment but only in improving their image and their profits. They do this with the greatest PR effort but with the smallest actual change in their production or corporate structure. This is why minimal initiatives are often advertised as a huge innovations. Always question whether these efforts are truthful, especially when large corporate chains suddenly market themselves as sustainable.

Presenting obvious features as a sign of quality

Another (even lazier) greenwashing strategy is to present the obvious as a special feature, or even as a sign of quality. This takes even less effort than the method mentioned above. Sometimes even the absence of a given legally-binding feature is presented as sustainable – for instance when a product doesn't use certain illegal toxins. So again, question the authenticity of features and get informed to avoid being fooled.

Exploiting ambiguities

If there is anything that makes greenwashing possible in the first place, it is the many ambiguities, unprotected terms and loopholes in the legal and advertising system. For example, terms like "natural" that have no clear legal definition can be used randomly and without certification. This is a golden opportunity for greenwashing fashion brands to print them on a product – even if the product is not environmentally-friendly in the slightest. Through a clever choice of words, a product can easily be advertised as sustainable.

Our tips

To be able to see through more complex greenwashing campaigns, we recommend that you always look at the numbers instead of the words. While words and terms can be twisted and manipulated, numbers are measurable and do not lie. And to add to that, you should always pay attention to transparency. If a brand or a product is truly sustainable and has nothing to hide then you should be able to trace every single step of the production chain. Since this turns out to be rather difficult with large corporations, you can refer to the "Fashion Transparency Index 2020".

On top of that, you are always on the safe side if you avoid falling for vague language and pay attention to official seals and certificates, such as the GOTS seal. This not only guarantees high social standards but also ecological fabric cultivation. You can read more about GOTS here.

Of course, it’s even better to research sustainable brands yourself. While it may sound like a lot of effort, there are actually many sustainable fashion blogs that have already done this work for you. And if you want even more accurate reviews of companies and their sustainability ratings, you can use apps and websites like Good on You. There you'll find thousands of carefully researched brands whose sustainability efforts are rated according to the environment, people and animals.

With these tips, it should now be easy for you to spot greenwashing right away! With the immense impact of fashion on the environment and climate change, we should all be committed to supporting truly sustainable brands and products. This will only be possible if the largest number of shoppers can easily spot greenwashing. That's why we at SANVT are fully transparent and make it easy for you to track our sustainability engagement throughout the entire production chain.