Sunglasses sitting on folded white shirt with a black and white label with the word 'sustainable', on top of terrazzo side table

How to not fall prey to greenwashing? Check the label!

As consumers become increasingly aware of the environmental footprint of the fashion industry, the call for sustainable alternatives intensifies. Yet, despite sincere intentions, the frustrating reality is that distinguishing sustainable fashion brands from those engaging in greenwashing remains a challenge. 

Greenwashing, as defined by the Oxford dictionary, refers to “activities by a company or an organisation that are intended to make people think that it is concerned about the environment, even if its real business actually harms the environment.” 

In a desire to reassure their more environmentally-minded customers, fast-fashion brands have been getting away with sticking vague words such as ‘eco-friendly’, ‘responsible’ or ‘natural’ onto green labels with pictures of trees. These green claims are often backed by insufficient evidence. A screening conducted by the European Commission in 2021, found that in the case of more than half of the seemingly dubious sustainability claims, the trader did not provide sufficient information for consumers to judge its accuracy.

The UK and EU governments are already beginning to clamp down on these misleading marketing tactics. 

Since July 2022, an investigation by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has been scrutinising ‘green’ claims made by fashion retailers ASOS, Boohoo and George at Asda which together make over £4.4 billion in annual UK sales. As a result, in a landmark agreement the three brands have voluntarily committed to using only accurate and clear green claims, and to filing regular reports to the CMA. 

In January 2024, the European Parliament approved the Directive on Empowering Consumers for the Green Transition, which prohibits unfair greenwashing commercial practices that cannot be substantiated by sufficient evidence. Importantly, it prohibits the practice of displaying sustainability labels that are not accredited by an independent certification scheme or established by public authority.

Amid the rise of greenwashing, sustainability labels have stepped in to fill the gap in consumer trust. These certifications certify that the manufacturer or organisation is following certain voluntary guidelines ideally addressing environmental impact, labour practices and material selection. 

However, while these certifications represent a step in the right direction, keep an eye out for red flags. Since sustainability certifications are privately-managed and not government-regulated, some lack transparency regarding their guidelines and application processes. 

Nevertheless, several reputable and trustworthy options exist. For example, the bluedesign certification appears on textiles used by brands such as Patagonia, ensuring adherence to strict standards that encompass the elimination of chemicals, a reduction in water and energy consumption, carbon offsetting, and the safeguarding of workers. Similarly, brands labelled as a Certified B Corporation balance profit and purpose by adhering to high standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability. 

Next time you are out shopping for new clothes, take a moment to check the label. If you spot the logo of one of these certifications, you can make your purchase with confidence, knowing that you are not falling prey to greenwashing!

Image Credit: Harper Sunday via Unsplash

Image Description: Sunglasses sitting on folded white shirt with a black and white label with the word ‘sustainable’, on top of terrazzo side table.