Many would also argue that the fashion industry is not being judged harshly enough and gets away with a lot. But there are steps in the right direction and nuances within sustainability ‘misses’ which, if built on, will generate needed momentum.
Many fashion brands have been sharing their sustainability ambitions and activities far and wide in recent years, using large marketing campaigns to demonstrate their ‘positive’ contribution. However, with six out of every ten fashion brands being found to be greenwashing and many still feeding overproduction, it is clear why campaign groups and lobbyists would get so worked up. But is this part of a broader story? Is there anything worthy to be said about brands’ sustainability efforts, even when they smack of greenwashing?
This may seem, at first sight, to be contradictory. With the tough target of meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, we need companies to be genuinely pulling together, not hiding behind flimsy claims. Many would also argue that the fashion industry is not being judged harshly enough and gets away with a lot. But there are steps in the right direction and nuances within sustainability ‘misses’ which, if built on, will generate positive momentum.
Heading up fashion purpose accounts at Given (we work with brands that have a genuine ambition to be purpose-driven), I see firsthand how businesses including John Lewis & Partners, IKEA, Zalando and Tommy Hilfiger are tackling the challenge. Many within the industry are working to identify new ways forward — enforcing strict standards within their supply chains to govern materials, production, processes, and sourcing, as well as employee safety and protection. While there should be no compromise on the latter, making fashion truly environmentally and socially sustainable requires long-term thinking and a massive culture shift.
Yet, many fashion brands today have been created to operate at speed — focusing on trends not quality; and fueling the desire to buy, buy, buy. As these brands run highly compartmentalised sustainability projects that can be delivered rapidly, the main goal is often to drive greater sales and reassure the young and fashionable that a collection is better for the planet (read: less harmful), rather than to actually create positive impacts. These small changes may be in the right direction; but they barely scratch the surface of the damage fashion is causing to the planet and are not sufficient to move the sustainability dial.
So, are such claims of progress to be simply disregarded as misleading greenwash?
I am a firm believer in taking a long-term view and being careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water in the short run. Unfortunately, fashion at present is an industry whose use of labour arbitrage in low-cost nations, dubious working practices and heavy carbon footprint mean it still does more harm than good. In such a context, even the slightest improvements should be heralded. Like sport, music and movies, fashion has a disproportionate influence over the behaviours of its followers — therefore, bringing the sustainability conversation to the public is a valuable first step that can be built on to create further gains. The effect on consumers should not be underestimated.
But regardless of the value of engaging consumers in sustainability, we can’t ignore the contradictions being perpetuated by the same brands — with overconsumption now being the biggest elephant in the room when it comes to sustainable fashion. In sustainable fashion marketing, the overconsumption piece often does not seem to matter — as seen by the fact that Primark, H&M and Nike were all voted in the top 5 most sustainable brands by the public in 2022. Currently, sustainable fashion initiatives targeted towards customers are often focused on what garments are made from, not about how many pieces they buy or who made them.
The marketing skills fashion brands have employed to capture the imaginations of consumers should be turned to tackle overconsumption — and they could start with the language they use and the stories they tell. I believe there is a need for new language and words to explain what sustainable fashion actually is. The word ‘fashion’ itself implies clothing that is cyclic and transient, that needs to be changed with the seasons and with fading trends. The reality is, we can wear anything we like, whenever we like — and this timeless positioning will help promote a more sustainable approach to apparel and move away from overconsumption. We should also look at ‘the stories’ clothes tell.
Truly sustainable fashion brands tend to be small and people-focused, tapping into the demand of their customers to reclaim stories about the clothes they wear. While fast fashion moves wearers away from communities and becomes about isolation and globalisation, ethical brands are about communities and being in tune with how people feel. There are also other ways to imbibe sustainable fashion with stories: Companies such as Depop and eBay add stories by allowing the wearer to layer a historical, ‘second time around’ narrative onto the clothes they wear. It is through these stories and language that sustainable fashion can be better understood and bought-into. That in turn will drive the industry’s true progress.
20 years ago, we never thought we'd see fast fashion brands talk about sustainability. So, when it comes to fashion’s sustainability story, let’s not be so focused on looking for evidence of greenwashing — what’s important is that the seed of progress is there. But now, in this pressing decade for change, let's push for and embrace a new narrative that gives us the confidence to break the shackles of cyclical fashion trends. And then, we'll really see if fast fashion brands can keep up by slowing down.