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How fashion brands pretend to be sustainable (and what you can do about it)

Green. Natural. Planet-friendly. Environmentalism and ethics are one of the hottest fashion trends of 2020. Up to 31% of Gen Z shoppers in a US survey said they would pay more for a product that is less damaging to the environment.

And major retailers are queuing up to fill the demand. ASOS brought out a ‘circular collection’ of recycled clothes. H&M brought out a ‘conscious line’ and committed to using 100% recycled materials by 2030. As a conscious shopper it’s easy to be persuaded that fashion giants are finally taking a step towards a more ethical way of making clothes.

But wait. The rise of conscious consumers also means a rise in brands using sustainability and ethics as a marketing tactic, rather than a real commitment to overhaul the environmental and human rights violations of their production methods.

Before we happily fill our basket with Primark’s ‘sustainable’ line, let’s look critically at what these green labels actually tell us. When is a brand’s ethical commitment the real deal?

  • What does the brand actually say on the label?

Fun fact: there is no legal criteria for a product to meet to have the labels natural, eco-friendly or green slapped on them. OK, it’s not really fun - but it is important to look for the evidence behind the claims. Is it eco-friendly or does it just have a picture of a leaf on it?

  • What does the brand actually say on their website?

The key to separating the good, the bad and the well-intentioned (but still bad) brands is transparency. Look on their website for detailed information about the materials they use, specific details of who makes their clothes and where, and what they’re doing to ensure fair working conditions and mitigate the environmental cost of production.

If this information is hard to find, consider emailing or tweeting the brand directly. If their response is vague or non-existent… you have your answer.

  • Is there a massive elephant in the room they’re distracting you from?

It’s one thing to release a new line of clothes from recycled materials. It’s another thing to recognise that the entire system of fast fashion production and consumption is incompatible with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and needs a complete overhaul.

ASOS releasing one ‘conscious’ line defeats the whole idea of sustainable and ethical production: if the rest of the brand continues to churn out cheap clothes as usual, it’s not really doing anything for the planet. It’s doing it for your wallet. If a brand’s response to the climate crisis is to produce even more clothes, it’s unlikely to do any good for the planet.

  • Look at the brand’s track record

The past actions of a brand can tell you a lot about its values. Particularly look out for how brands have reacted during the Covid-19 pandemic. At a time when global solidarity was desperately needed, brands including Boohoo, Forever21 and Victoria’s Secret left millions of women, men and children without any income to survive and stripped them of basic human rights.

Of course, brands can change for the better. But for a fast fashion brand to change for the better, it has to stop being a fast fashion brand.

So what can you do to fight greenwashing and avoid falling for the same tricks?

  • Ask. Ask the brands what they’re doing for their workers and the environment. Tweet them. Join in Fashion Revolution’s campaign to ask #WhoMadeMyClothes.

  • Use ethical fashion apps like Good On You that rank brands for their sustainability.

  • Support small & local businesses instead. If you can’t afford this, then try shopping secondhand or swapping clothes with friends.

  • Spread the word! Fast fashion has become normalised. So let’s de-normalise it. Let’s demand better and put respect for human rights, and environmental sustainability, back on the list of basic requirements for a brand to meet.

Cass Hebron


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