By: Emily L. Hutchins
October 21, 2022
A recent investigation by regulators in the United Kingdom has brought to light a growing trend of greenwashing in fast-fashion. Greenwashing, the act of making a product appear more environmentally friendly than it really is, was coined in 1986 to identify companies spending more to advertise their environmentalism than to actually address criticisms. The recent scrutiny of fast-fashion brands highlights the growing friction between two competing forces: the social pressure to address climate change and the equally strong push for affordable consumer goods. Consumer surveys indicate a growing desire for sustainable products while also showing an unwillingness to pay more, with only one in four consumers willing to. This has left many companies eager to exaggerate environmental claims to appease this new generation of consumer without actually changing production.
The growing cultural obsession with fast-fashion and its many “microtrends” is well captured across Instagram and Tik Tok. An easy recent example is the Skims dress designed by Kim Kardashian which has resulted in countless “dupes” by well-known fast-fashion companies like Zara and Shien and major retailers like Amazon. While living in the digital age has provided a tremendous opportunity for individuals to create and share ideas quickly and widely, it has also made it a lot easier for companies to profit off of constantly evolving trends without much regulatory oversight. Social media has also given rise to the “influencer,” a person with the power to shape the behavior and thinking of their followers. While some influencers have undoubtedly produced helpful content, others have helped shape an increasingly materialistic, consumption focused culture.
Influencers may be using social media to move trends quicker than before, but they’re not the main culprit causing the rise of microtrends and fast-fashion hauls. Rather, the stunning rise in these trends has been fueled by the increasing affordability of fast-fashion clothing combined with the accessibility provided by online retailers. Rather than having seasonal collections, affordable fast-fashion brands can copy designs from the runway and reproduce them for a fraction of the price within months meaning that there may now be 11-15 cycles per year. The combination of online shopping ease, influencer culture, and the human affliction for instant gratification has resulted in the perfect recipe for a new method of environmental disaster.
In the past twenty years, the amount of clothing Americans throw away has doubled. A cotton t-shirt that takes 2,700 liters of water to make can take up to 200 years to decompose in a landfill. With trends in consumption only increasing, this is raising alarms for environmentalists and companies alike. Some outdoor companies including Patagonia and REI have opted to address the issue by providing second-hand selling options to allow customers to buy used rather than new. Taking a different approach, a number of fast-fashion companies have instead opted to provide environmental scorecards for their clothing, like H&M’s “conscious choice” labeling.
The fashion industry now accounts for approximately 10% of the annual global emission and nearly 20% of wastewater. In 2021, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) created the Green Claims Code, a comprehensive guide to help businesses avoid greenwashing missteps and to create a benchmark set of principles. With the code in mind and growing calls for oversight into branding language, UK regulators have begun looking into three companies’ green credentials: Asos, Boohoo, and George at Asda. Whether or not the companies’ claims will be found to be misleading may take several years to conclude, but the cases highlight the need for international standards regulating the fashion industry.
Companies are not alone in facing criticism. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, (“SAC”) which developed the Higgs Sustainability Profiles that H&M relied on for its scorecards, has paused its Index Transparency Programin response to concerns by the Norwegian Consumer Authority about information misuse. An investigation by Quartz showed that over half of H&M’s scorecards that claimed a garment was more environmentally friendly were in fact false. H&M has removed all scorecards from its website since being sued in New York in July for “falsified information that did not comport with the underlying data.”
The New York suit is just one of many suits that highlight how difficult it is to regulate the industry. If the very data that should show consumers which products are more sustainable is being used to mislead consumers by the companies themselves, who should ultimately control labeling? The UK’s guidance for business making environmental claims is one policy choice that should be explored at an international level, but it’s not enough. Government guidance without binding regulations won’t override many companies’ interests in profit. Instead, national and international solutions may need to look more like the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates drugs and products for health and safety.
One country at the forefront of fashion regulation is France. In 2020, France passed a law to prohibit the destruction of unsold clothing instead requiring producers, importers, and distributors to donate unsold non-food goods. Companies that fail to do so are required to pay for the destruction under a “polluter pays” clause. Additionally, France has introduced a rule set to go into effect in 2023 that will require labelling that informs consumers of the climate impact of a garment. The label requirement will require companies to look at factors like how and where raw materials were grown, the distance travelled, and the factory’s energy source. A similar rule is expected for the rest of the EU by 2026.
Labelling is one solution to address lack of transparency, but it will take more to convince many money-conscious consumers to change their behavior. Therefore, countries must take steps to ban certain products from ending up on shelves to begin with. By setting production limits, promoting reuse and recycling, and improving transparency, countries may be able to wrestle back the growing environmental threat being created by fast-fashion.