Me. Me. Me. So many times, and in so many different and confusing ways.
Greenwashing is described by Cambridge Dictionary as making ‘people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it actually is’. This could be through marketing campaigns that project the small, positive actions they’ve done far above the huge issues in their business model and supply chain or through just chucking out a few sustainable buzzwords and hoping they stick.
Approaching buying a new item of clothing whilst considering the sustainable, ethical and moral credentials of the company you are buying it from is not an easy task. Even fashion brands that consistently appear on sustainable bloggers Instagrams or blog posts or that are sold in specifically sustainable shops can, with a little digging, turn out to be a total letdown.
One brand that particularly got me was Matt & Nat, a vegan accessories brand based in Canada that regularly featured in beautifully-styled sustainable fashion photoshoots. I lusted after one of their backpacks for a good few years, considering them to be a sustainable alternative that was also genuinely attractive. On their own website they project their brand as better for the environment, stating that ‘in 2010, the UN reported that the best way to protect the environment is to adopt a vegan/vegetarian diet, given the harmful effects of factory farming’.
This vague reference to a UN report from ten years ago should have been my first red flag. The report did say that ‘a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from…the worst impacts of climate change’, and that the production of animal products ‘causes more damage than construction minerals such as sand, cement, plastics or metals’. So they are correct in saying that because all their products are made from vegan materials it is more sustainable, but compared to what, the absolute most damaging thing? That doesn’t seem like a good bar to judge it against if we’re looking for genuine change.
Matt & Nat make most of their products from PU (polyurethane) and PVC (polyvinylchloride), both of these are plastics with PVC being one of the most environmentally-damaging ones. The chemicals used in producing PVC have been found to cause life-altering side effects in those working with them, such as cancer and birth defects, leading to campaigns from Greenpeace asking for its production to be stopped entirely. Alongside this, other than ‘diligently visiting’, they are vague about the details of what they expect from the factories they work with, and only one of these factories operates by SA8000 standard, which means it is committed to providing a living wage for workers, no discrimination and a safe workplace.
Picking on one brand seems almost unfair when so many use the same techniques. Boohoo came into the spotlight over lockdown for its suppliers’ treatment of its workers in factories in Leicester, with many being asked to carry on working when sick with COVID-19, whilst also selling t-shirts with social distancing slogans on. Missguided, owned by the same parent company, chose lockdown as the perfect time to release a documentary on Channel 4 showing the ‘boss babe’ culture of their head offices. No mention of the poor treatment of female garment workers in their supply chain came up, and it’s striking that quite a classic dynamic within fashion companies, of a male CEO earning lots more than all the female workers who do the majority of the work in the business, was spun to be a tale of female empowerment. This branding strategy moves away from greenwashing and more into ‘woke-washing’, a term used to describe when businesses use ethical and progressive values in their advertising to conceal the bad practices of their companies.
Realising you’ve been greenwashed or woke-washed and invested in a company you don’t agree with, shouldn’t be met with guilt. It reflects badly on them, not on you. Acknowledge the ways they attracted you to their brand, learn from it and look out for those techniques in the future.
Realistically, it’ll probably happen again, because different companies use different tricks to present themselves positively and certain companies will try their absolute hardest to hide the not-so-rose-tinted facts from you. Also, there’s a lot of other stuff going on in life and sometimes you just don’t have the time or money to wade through all the lies just to get a t-shirt. Websites and apps like Good On You can be so helpful for speeding this process up, it was there that I found out about the less pleasing sustainability credentials of Matt & Nat. The scoring system is really simple to understand and their research into different fashion brands is regularly updated and reviewed.
Our part in the fashion industry as ‘consumers’ can make it seem like the only way to change the industry is to consume differently but we have so much power in refusing to consume. Obviously at FFT, we are big fans of repair and reuse as a way of doing this and trying to ask ourselves whether we can avoid buying new by first, repairing something we already own or reusing something that someone else no longer needs is always a good place to start. But using our voice, even in the smallest way, can have a real impact too.
Over lockdown with many brands refusing to pay garment factories for orders and a lack of options in terms of protesting physically, many people took to social media to support campaigns led by Clean Clothes Campaign and Labour Behind the Label to place pressure on these brands to #PayUp. Although tagging a brand in an activist post or commenting on their posts when they try to show off their sustainable and ethical credentials can seem tiny, brands can’t ignore thousands of people doing it. And some of those brands listened to this action with Gap and Levis changing their minds and paying up.
In a past blog post, we reviewed Lauren Bravo’s How to Break Up with Fast Fashion where she used the emotions and complications that come with getting over your ex as an excellent analogy for getting over our addiction to fast fashion. With woke-washing becoming a trend this year in both fashion and online dating (green-washing pops up here a little bit too), that comparison seems even more apt. With dating, if someone presents a version of themselves in which they care about the social, political and environmental issues that you care about, that can be attractive and make you believe they’re a good person. When you get to know them a little longer and realise their actions don’t back these ideas up, our trust can be broken. Most people don’t give up on love entirely however, we learn from it and little by little, we work out how to pick out the good ones.