Sustainable fashion: Are you being greenwashed?

Greenwashing: the ‘eco-friendly’ marketing ploy deceiving customers, lining the pockets of fashion companies, and destroying the environment. H&M can tell you all about it.

What does sustainable fashion actually mean? Crucially, it refers to the entire production of a product, including the people who create it, the materials used, and its lifespan. Sustainable fashion is therefore concerned with the environmental, social and economic impact of a garment.

Sustainable fashion

According to the UN Environment Programme, “the fashion industry produces between 2 to 8 per cent of global carbon emissions [and] every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned.”

The word ‘sustainable’ makes us feel good about our purchases, but more often than not fashion companies are falsely marketing their goods as sustainable in order to create an environmentally conscious profile, that doesn’t exist, for profit; aka ‘greenwashing’.

Take H&M for example. They initiated a recycling scheme offering customers discounts in exchange for old garments and in 2010 they introduced their sustainable clothesline ‘Conscious Collective’.

Additionally, in 2013, they created a ‘Roadmap to Fair Living Wage’ to ensure structures were in place to provide a fair living wage for their workers by 2018. However, substantial evidence indicates that these initiatives are misleading and false.

Firstly, the recycle scheme merely encourages customers to dispose of their clothing in order to spend more money ‘guilt-free’, perpetuating the single-use culture, and much of the material cannot be recycled.

Secondly, workers at its supplier factories are miles away from receiving a living wage. The Clean Clothes Campaign found that Cambodian workers earned “almost half a base living wage,” Bulgarians were “paid less than 10% of a base living wage for the regular working hours” and Indian and Turkish workers earned “about a third of the estimated base living wage.”

Finally, their ‘Conscious Collective’ clothesline, contains more unsustainable materials than their main line. According to H&M, “at least 50% of each piece is made from more sustainable materials”, however, a report from Changing Markets in June this year found that “nearly three-quarters (72%) had a synthetic composition – over 10% more than the main collection – and 57% contained polyester.”

Earlier this month, climate justice activist Tolmeia Greggory (Instagram: @tolmeia) successfully protested in the window display of a H&M store which was using images of child eco-activists and environmental slogans to promote their clothing.


Tolmeia Greggory protesting in a H&M store, 2 August 2021. Photo: @tolmeia

Greggory also drew attention to H&Ms scarily effective false advertising in an Instagram post, pointing out that “these companies are so good at it!

They know how to join the dots and get people’s brains to connect a good thing with a bad thing.”

We completely forget that H&M is, at its core, a fast fashion company concerned with producing large quantities of cheap clothing quickly and therefore are looking to capitalise upon increased consumer interest in sustainability.

Importantly, not everyone can afford to shop sustainably. Sustainable clothing lines can average out at upwards of £100 per item making it impossible for many to afford a completely ethical wardrobe, therefore fast fashion is frequently the only option.

It is a complex issue that involves intersectional thinking. Instead of blindly blaming the consumers, the industry itself must change.

Ultimately, fast fashion companies are often saying a lot without really saying anything. It can be as big as making grand claims to reduce their global emissions, yet revealing no plan, or as small as insidiously using targeted marketing, like ‘climate crusader’, to create a sense of moral righteousness.

Always keep in mind, are you being greenwashed?