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Ethics in the industry: Greenwashing

Explore the concept of “greenwashing” in the fashion industry.
This is a photograph of a woman holding up a t shirt with the printed words, green is the new black

In this step we explore the concept of “greenwashing” in the fashion industry.

What is “greenwashing”?

Greenwashing: The practice of making false or misleading claims about the environmental safety or sustainability of their products or production processes.

Madeleine Hill, in the article “How can you tell when a fashion brand is greenwashing?,” provides insight into the practice. She noted that, for example, fossil fuel companies who select green as their logo color are subliminally influencing customers to “think green” in association with the company.

In the fashion industry, some sustainability-minded actions may be misconstrued by consumers as coming from a 100 percent green-minded company, when this in fact is not the case. Hill cautions that brands that promote their environmental packaging may be generating far more waste through production.

The use of energy-efficient utilities is sometimes promoted as a decision to be green, but it may actually be little more than meeting local legal standards; similarly, reducing energy output and fuel consumption sounds good, but when the benchmark reference point is excessive, a big reduction might still be creating a lot of carbon emissions. She suggests that consumers be wary of brands that tout progressive fashion offerings, such as organic clothing because, for most large brands, the green offerings are only a very small portion of the total merchandise produced.

According to Hill, “What a brand is really doing here is hoping that the green glow of one initiative will rub off on the company as a whole.” Consider the following examples where fashion companies promote their sustainable and eco-friendly activities while continuing to manufacture and promote goods in unsustainable ways:

  • H&M promotes its desire to be a sustainable business, but they produce fast fashion that continues to be purchased for low cost and disposed of by consumers after relatively few wearings. H&M has also introduced a recycling program in an attempt to reduce post-consumer waste; however, participation in the recycling program positions consumers to buy more clothing.
  • The consumer advocacy group Greenpeace has targeted Nike and Adidas for producing advertisements that promote eco-conscious actions while simultaneously producing their products using non-sustainable and environmentally unsafe methods such as using hazardous chemicals in apparel products.
  • In 2015, JC Penney and Nordstrom were cited and fined for labeling rayon fabrics “bamboo.”

The company Good on You provides an app that ranks fashion brands according to their scale of sustainable and eco-friendly practices.

In this course, you will continue to learn about various ethical dilemmas that companies in the fashion industry are constantly wrestling with, and consider the role you can play in your environment through the decisions you make.

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Consumers and Ethical Considerations in the Fashion Industry

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