What exactly is greenwashing?
Have you seen the word 'greenwashing' being thrown around and not known exactly what it means? Or maybe you don't know how to spot when someone is greenwashing? Keep reading and all will become clear.
If you type in 'greenwashing definition' to Google, something like this will come up:


to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it actually is.

Simply put: a brand markets themselves as being super conscious about the environment when, in fact, they're only tackling a tiny portion of the problem.

We now have a general definition but how can we catch it in the act? If a brand is using clever marketing to present themselves as 'green' on the surface, how can we, the simple consumer, see past this eco-exterior and find the skeletons in their closet?

How greenwashing presents itself

Language is the first thing that brands use to shout about their sustainability: marketers use it to persuade you that their brand is doing something. Words are the tool that draw the consumer in.

In the brand images on the right we have multiple eco-buzzwords: cares, kind, eco-conscious, intention, committed, planet power and conscious. These words appear on the sustainability collection pages of major fast fashion brands. Unfortunately, Primark stating that it 'cares' and Zara stating that it is 'committed' doesn't really do anything. Of course, they need to have a name for their 'sustainable' ranges and need to market these in some way, but these words are empty without evidence. It's important that buzzwords are not taken at face value.
Greenwashing, sustainable fashion, ethical fashion, ethical process
Brands advertising sustainable fashion
Looking at the name 'Primark Cares' shows us that Primark has a portion of its stock that is slightly more sustainable than the rest. Ironically, by Primark differentiating between their stock that 'cares' for the environment, it just highlights the fact that Primark has a huge amount of stock that doesn't care for the planet.

It's good practice to dissect buzzwords used in sustainability collections. If we see brands using the words 'biodegradable', 'sustainable', 'green' and 'eco-friendly', it's worth thinking about what these words mean in action. If something is labelled 'biodegradable', it might be a material that takes a long time to biodegrade, like synthetics. If something is 'sustainable', in what sense is it sustainable? It's quite a vague term. If something is 'green', that literally means nothing. 'Eco-friendly', in what way?
Sustainability, greenwashing, sustainable fashion, sustainable brands
Images evocating sustainability
As we can see, white and green are the chosen colours of sustainability (and, apparently in the case of Zara, a multicoloured picture featuring a tree). Like the use of language, it's relatively easy for brands to include colours that have strong associations with clean living. Brands will occasionally throw in the odd sustainable image to their social media page to show that the environment is on their radar. Whilst scrolling through Primark and Monki's Instagrams, it was extremely obvious which images would have a caption regarding sustainability: the ones featuring the standard green and white colours.
It's interesting how brands are willing to show images of leaves and cotton yet they don't include images of the Aral Sea (a once large lake that was drained due to cotton production in the area) or a picture of a garment worker's paycheck.
Sustainability, greenwashing, sustainable fashion, sustainable brands
Images evocating sustainability
Promoting overconsumption
If brands are promoting overconsumption alongside their 'sustainable' collections, this is inherently unsustainable (and hypocritical). Even more hypocritical is the overproduction of said sustainable collections: producing mountains of sustainable items can never be sustainable.
Greenwashing, sustainable fashion, fashion brands, fashion labels

They don't make it easy for consumers, I'll give them that. Pushing out 20+ new collections a year and having constant sales makes it difficult for the consumer to turn away. But, ultimately, if we really want to make fashion more sustainable, we need to be slowing down our consumption. A lot.

Many brands can't seem to decide which camp they fall in. ASOS launched their Circular Collection where they highlight the importance of reducing textile waste, but they also normalise unnecessary purchases through memes on their Instagram.
Greenwashing, sustainable fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable brands

Image from
Lack of supply chain transparency
Sustainability doesn't stop at using more organic cotton. Sustainability doesn't stop at offering recycling in-store. Sustainability doesn't stop at removing plastic packaging.

For our fashion industry to be sustainable, we need to be made aware of who farms the raw materials and who sews them together. We need names of factories and farms. We need this information so we can recognise where changes need to happen.
It is unsustainable to pay garment workers and farmers below a living wage. It is unsustainable to have unsafe factories. It is unsustainable to have gender discrimination in the workplace.

The amazing resource that is allows you to find out whether a brand pays their garment workers a living wage. So, before we take a brand's sustainable imagery at face value, we can check whether they are taking the essential steps to make sure they are paying their workers a sustainable salary.

When brands focus all their efforts on trying to persuade us of their sustainability by producing 100% organic cotton t-shirts and t-shirts made from partly recycled polyester (whilst still pumping out dozens of collections a year), it stops real progress being made.

What would real progress look like?
Real progress would be to recognise that the fast fashion business model is fundamentally unsustainable. Producing more clothes than we use will ensure we burn through our resources, whether these clothes are made from recycled cotton or not.

Real progress would be paying farmers and garment workers a living wage and providing them with safe working conditions.

Real progress would be making clothes designed to last and encouraging consumers to treat clothes as less disposable. If brands aren't going to change their business model, we need to take back control and mindfully think about how much we buy.

Real progress would be a fashion industry that is designed to be circular. So, not wasting resources, making products with longevity and re-using them when they've fulfilled their purpose.

Hopefully, you're now more aware of the term 'greenwashing'. It's a very complex topic and brands are very good at it. As consumers, we need get better at spotting it and fight back!
Article by Catherine McAteer
Main image, bespoke design by @yingxuanling_stars at @starrynuits