How education can help us make sustainable fashion choices and why it matters
Despite growing awareness of the dark side of fashion consumption, fast fashion continues to grow on the back of false claims that signal sustainability to customers. These so-called greenwashing incidents are highly detrimental to society, economy, and the environment. To avoid being fooled, consumers need to be mindful of their decisions if they want to contribute to a more sustainable fashion landscape. The first step is to seek out information about what we buy and educate ourselves about more sustainable options. In addition to education, it is key to adopt the right mindset and understand that seemingly trivial decisions can be huge difference makers.
Words, such as “green”, “eco”, “recycled”, are familiar to everyone who has recently shopped in online fashion stores. A recent study, that assessed 4000 products from 12 companies across various market segments, found that 39% of all offerings were advertised with sustainability-related claims. This is good news, right? Everybody knows that the fashion industry is plagued by significant environmental and socio-economic issues, so it’s great that companies are pushing for change! Unfortunately, the same study also revealed that 60% of the buzzwords thrown around by clothing brands did not meet sustainability standards. Instead of providing evidence of transformation, they were part of greenwashing campaigns aimed at improving public image.
To protect the environment and our society, the key take-away is that we need to pay more attention to the clothes we buy and the brands we support. Yet, the hidden complexities of fashion decision-making make us vulnerable to deceitful tactics. For this reason, education can help us to cut through the noise and make sustainable consumption decisions.
Before getting into the “how” of sustainable fashion consumption, let’s get into why it is so important. Amid ever-growing environmental consciousness, the most important argument for education is how easily we can fall for greenwashing, which describes the use of marketing communications that create the appearance of companies committed to sustainability principles. Examples include not providing evidence for sustainability claims, using vague terms, and claiming eco-friendliness based on a small subset of product attributes. The consequences for consumers are highly detrimental, as greenwashing allows companies to benefit from image enhancements, while avoiding the time and resources required to actually transform their operations. Instead, they exploit the lack of quantifiability and transparency inherent to sustainability, which makes it difficult for legislators to adapt consumer protection regulations. While sustainability per se is hard to measure, the negative externalities of greenwashing and the associated business practices are not. The issue is most visible in fast fashion, which rose to the forefront of the industry on the back of well-known brands, such as H&M and Zara. The primary goal is to profit from producing huge quantities, selling at low prices and benefitting from overconsumption. This value logic is responsible for substantial greenhouse gas emissions, waste and poor working conditions. The negative social impact is highlighted by surveys showing that 93% of brands pay below the living wage. From an environmental perspective, the industry is among the worst pollutants in the world. This was shown by numerous studies indicating that it produced more greenhouse emission than international air travel and shipping put together, created 35% of microplastic found in the ocean.
Despite broad awareness of these issues, fast fashion continues to grow. The problem is exacerbated by brands making customers believe that they’re making sustainable choices while they’re really contributing to the problem. Multiple surveys have proven huge consumer support for sustainable clothing, but researchers found that only 4% of UK consumers actually bought from sustainable brands. This can be attributed in large parts to a lack of knowledge and greenwashing, which is precisely why we need to educate ourselves about the problem and explore sustainable fashion options. Otherwise, how can we avoid being deceived and use our collective spending power to drive positive change?
The first step is learning how to spot greenwashing and avoid harmful brands. Some helpful tips:
- Look for evidence in company messaging, such as the sustainability agenda on the website, that back up ethical claims beyond marketing buzzwords.
- Learn about important product attributes, especially materials, to enable fact-checking while shopping.
- Verify if brands hold legitimate certifications from sustainability organizations, such as Fair Trade and B Corp, for example.
Secondly, consumers need to know where to shop instead. Spearheaded by innovative designers, such as Stella McCartney, the sustainable fashion movement has come into public consciousness over the past decade. The term sustainable fashion is used for clothes, which were produced, distributed and purchased under consideration of ecological and socio-economic concerns. Due to the multifaceted nature of the issue, sustainable fashion consists of multiple parts, including conscious fashion, ethical, circular and sloe. This variety highlights the importance of taking a multi-stakeholder approach for fashion companies to transform their complex value chains.
Nowadays, sustainable brands cover the whole market spectrum, emphasizing environmentally and socially responsible practices. Fortunately for consumers, growing environmental awareness has created a plethora of shopping options, which makes sustainable clothing accessible to the mass market. If you are still looking for your favorite sustainable brand, feel free to check out links at the bottom for inspiration.
While education is hugely important, it is only a part of the big picture. It is important that we understand fashion as a complex decision that requires more than just clicking the purchase button during the next Zara sale. We need to convince ourselves that we need to be mindful about our consumption to make better and more sustainable choices. This can mean buying less, better quality or getting more out of what you already have. While the allure of overconsumption of cheap clothing is strong, the educated dresser realizes that the temporary pleasure pales in comparison to the gains associated to better long-term decisions. This means that the higher price in terms of money and mental effort is worth it because the choices we make now will shape the future.
Especially in terms of fashion, there is a certain urgency to integrate sustainability sooner rather than later. Industry experts predict that the problem could get much worse, such that fashion alone could use up 25% to 30% of the world’s remaining carbon budget and continue to expose people to poor working conditions. For this reason, fashion is the perfect example to illustrate how seemingly trivial decisions, such as the clothes we buy and how we wear them, can have a lasting impact.
(Useful links: https://www.thegoodtrade.com/features/fair-trade-clothing; https://renoon.com/)
Conscious Life & Style. 2021. 7 Types of Greenwashing in Fashion: What You Need to Know. [online] Available at: <https://www.consciouslifeandstyle.com/how-to-identify-greenwashing/> [Accessed 5 November 2021].
Fashionchecker.org. 2021. FashionChecker: wages and transparency in the garment industry. [online] Available at: <https://fashionchecker.org/> [Accessed 5 November 2021].
George, S., 2021. Report: 60% of sustainability claims by fashion giants are greenwashing. [online] edie.net. Available at: <https://www.edie.net/news/7/Report–60–of-sustainability-claims-by-fashion-giants-are-greenwashing/> [Accessed 5 November 2021].
Greggs, J., 2021. Don’t be fooled: Greenwashing in fashion – REAL SUSTAINABILITY. [online] REAL SUSTAINABILITY. Available at: <https://realsustainability.org/dont-be-fooled-greenwashing-in-fashion/> [Accessed 5 November 2021].
Ho, S., 2021. Nearly 60% of Sustainable Fashion Claims Are Greenwashing, Report Finds. [online] Green Queen. Available at: <https://www.greenqueen.com.hk/fashion-brands-sustainability-claims-greenwashing/> [Accessed 5 November 2021].
Statista. 2021. Sustainable fashion purchase behavior UK 2020 | Statista. [online] Available at: <https://www.statista.com/statistics/1168849/sustainable-fashion-purchase-united-kingdom/> [Accessed 5 November 2021].
Team, G., 2021. Greenwashing In Fashion Is On The Rise, Here’s How To Spot It. [online] Green Queen. Available at: <https://www.greenqueen.com.hk/greenwashing-in-fashion-is-on-the-rise-heres-how-to-spot-it/> [Accessed 5 November 2021].
The Good Trade. 2021. 35 Ethical And Sustainable Clothing Brands Betting Against Fast Fashion. [online] Available at: <https://www.thegoodtrade.com/features/fair-trade-clothing> [Accessed 5 November 2021].