Published: August 01, 2022Updated: October 30, 202215 min read
If you feel like everyone in fashion is lying about their environmental impact, and have been wondering how to avoid greenwashing, this is for you.
I started in the sustainable fashion space in a time when no one really knew what they were talking about.
Back then, the people drawn into sustainable fashion were models and influencers who couldn’t hack it in mainstream fashion. Conveniently for them, there was close to no competition in the environmentally friendly fashion space.
So sustainable fashion was dominated by models who had no idea how clothes were actually made and had definitely never been in a factory. And, (if you really want my honest opinion) they were all caustic personalities that were outcast from fashion because of their problematic behavior.
Sustainable fashion was a toxic place, full of false environmental claims, led by non-experts - most of them are actually famous for leading cancel campaigns having other influencers and brands erased from social media (not for the groundbreaking world-changing work they pretended to do).
And that leads us to the chaotic space that is sustainable and ethical fashion today. If the rules feel like they are changing every day, it’s because they are. And if you have been asking yourself how to avoid greenwashing, and feeling like you end up with more questions than answers, you are not alone.
But, before we get started.
Have you heard about the super secret document that everyone in the fashion industry uses, but no one is talking about? Probably not. That is because you can't find it on Google or TikTok (believe me, I've tried).
It's a form I have used for over 13 years at every job I have ever had. Literally everyone from brands to fabric suppliers use it, but you can't find it anywhere publicly.
The best part?It can cut your sourcing time in half, and save you tons of money in product development! This is the kind of info consultants charge the big bucks for. And, I'm giving it away for free until the end of the month.
Now for the fun part. I was inspired to write this post when an influencer I follow put out a list of questions that customers should ask brands in response to them asking her for help in how to avoid greenwashing. Call me a masochist, but for some reason, I decided to click on the post being promoted on the gram, knowing full well that it would annoy me.
Honestly, sometimes I think my success is purely fueled by rage. It’s what motivates me to keep putting out all this free information and continue working towards changing the fashion industry.
Anyway, I obviously wasn’t thrilled with the questions in the list, and it led to me writing this post you are reading now.
Here is how this is going to work. I will share with you the how to avoid greenwashing questions that the influencer suggests you ask brands. Then I will explain to you why they are actually encouraging more greenwashing and suggest better questions you should be asking instead.
SINCE WHEN DID CONSUMERS START DEMANDING ANSWERS ABOUT WHERE THEIR CLOTHING COMES FROM?
Let’s start at the beginning with a little backstory . . .
It all started with a simple campaign from the advocacy group Fashion Revolution that asked customers to ask the brands they love: “Who made my clothes?”
In response to customers demanding answers about where their clothing came from, brands provided photos of their workers smiling and holding signs that said, “I made your clothes.”
If you can’t see how this is problematic, don't worry, you are not alone. I’m going to spell it all out for you right now.
This was basically the original fashion greenwashing campaign.
Here is what went down.
In providing these photos of minorities holding signs next to sewing machines, brands wanted to make their customers believe they knew their supply chain and therefore, they were ethical, fair trade, transparent - you know, all those conscious fashion buzz words.
But it was all a facade.
First off, brands chorused workers into taking the photos for solely their own benefit. The factories and workers almost NEVER benefited because they were never tagged in the images (brands kept this secret so other brands wouldn’t run out and steal their sources).
Then there was the lying.
Any brand, even the unethical ones, could get workers to take these photos. Having the photo didn’t actually prove anything about the brand's supply chain. But, for some reason, consumers thought it did (because that's what Fashion Revolution was wrongfully promising at the time - saying, if a brand can show an "I made your clothes photo", they are safe to buy from).
In reality, these “I made your clothes” photos gave consumers this false sense of security that companies participated in ethical manufacturing when, in reality, they did not. Some brands were literally finding poor people on the street and paying them a dollar or two the hold up the sign.
And last, let’s talk about the people in the photo (if they really were factory workers).
Factory workers hate these photos. I have asked hundreds of factory workers at this point if they enjoy these photos, and they all say they hate them (but they tell brands they love them because they don't want to lose their business for not complying). Countless times, they have told me they feel like animals at the zoo and not human beings when they are part of these campaigns.
When they see their photos on brand websites, they don’t feel pride within the 10-minutes of fame. Instead, they feel used and abused. And anyone that is arguing differently, I can guarantee is a brand using the image to sell more products.
Basically, a campaign that was created to help teach people how to avoid greenwashing, actually created more of it.
And from there, consumers went from asking “who made my clothes” to asking lists of other questions to get brands to prove they were ethical (because this is how the internet works, we are always trying to outdo the last thing).
INFLUENCER QUESTION #1
Where are all of your products/materials sourced from and how are they produced (details of each material type if there are multiple)? E.g. countries, certifications, including swing tags, packaging, etc.
This is an insane thing to ask. Period. Full stop. I am not even going to pretend it's ok to ask a brand this. Because it's not.
This question shows just how little people understand about supply chain (yes, even the "expert" "influencers").
Notice the question specifically asks "where are ALL OF your products…"
A brand could be working with hundreds of different suppliers. Remember, a bag supply chain, is different from a dress supply chain, is different from a jeans supply chain. If you are only interested in one top, why on earth do you need all that info?
For some reason, influencers always think that when talking about how to avoid greenwashing the solution is a 20-page document. Who has time to ready something like that anyway?
So, the first thing to do here would be to narrow down your question to what you want to purchase.
Not interested in actually purchasing anything? Well then, stop it with the questions how to avoid greenwashing questions, Nancy Drew.
If there is something you are interested in purchasing, I would rephrase the question like this:
“I am very interested in your Pamala t-shirt, and I noticed you say it’s 100% organic cotton but don’t have any organic cotton certifications. Is there a reason for this? Can you help verify that the top is actually organic?”
See the difference in the question? In the rephrased version:
You want to buy something from them.
You prove you have done your own research. Because, you know what the item is made of but still have questions and are asking for more specifics.
The first is an example of an uneducated and lazy customer; the second is an example of someone who is educated, doing their part, and asking a brand to meet them halfway.
People that come to brands demanding for full supply chain audits are like babies throwing a tantrum. They want what they want, for no real reason, and will lose their cool until they get it.
Don’t be an ethical fashion baby. Be a cool informed consumer.
INFLUENCER QUESTION #2
Where do your products end up at the end of their life? How can they be recycled and kept into the resource loop?
IMO in the how to avoid greenwashing conversation, the end life of sustainable products is the consumer's responsibility, not the brands. Because when brands take over, it's not always what is best for the customer.
What do I mean by this?
Let’s take a look at very famous sustainability resale program, that many mainstream media outlets have deemed revolutionary.
This is going to get mathy. But I promise it’s worth it.
So here is how the program works. Let's call the brand, The Best Clothing Company Ever. You can sell your used items on the brands website. And after you make a sale, you get 100% of your sale in The Best Clothing Company Ever store credit.
Let’s look at the retail math. Say you buy one of their 100% organic cotton tops that retails for around $250. The cost to make this in India would be about $30, add $5 for shipping and duties. That’s $35.
Okay, so let’s assume they profit $215 off the sale.
Now you are tired of the shirt and want a new one. So you sell your shirt on their resale website for say $100. And get $100 The Best Clothing Company Ever store credit (notice you don’t get cash – this is done for a reason, and I am getting to it).
So now The Best Clothing Company Ever has made another $100, and you have the opportunity to buy something new.
Maybe you want a new shirt to replace the old one. The only problem is you only have $100 in store credit, not the $250 you need for your new purchase. So you need to spend an additional $150.
Yeah, you feel like you are getting a good deal with your credit from old clothes, but let’s look at the numbers.
The Best Clothing Comapny Ever already got your $100 from the sale of your old shirt and now they are getting another $150 from your bank account. That is a total of $250 for them. So again, they are getting the same profit on the shirt of $215.
Business as usual for The Best Clothing Company Ever.
But you, the customer, ends up being the loser.
Because, cash is king.
Locking your money into their buy-back credit system allows you to only shop from their store.
You could have taken your $100 and gone literally to any other shop on the planet. But now, if you want to use your credit, you are essentially forced to make another purchase from them.
YOU HAVE MORE POWER THAN YOU REALIZE.
And that, my friends, is how companies turn your one-time order into a two-time order, doubling their bottom line. All in the name of environmental benefit.
Or try participating in a clothing swap. This is also a great place to network and meet new friends. To find a clothing swap near you, check out Facebook or Eventbrite for local clothing swap events.
INFLUENCER QUESTION #3
How are your products shipped to customers? E.g, packaging, and carbon neutral shipping.
Shipping has become one of the influencers' favorite topics on how to avoid greenwashing.
There are never-ending arguments about the best way to shop. Does it take less gas to get in your car and go to the mall four times a year? Or less fuel to ship everything to your home. What about the returns in shipping from eco-conscious companies like rent the runway?
For right now I just want to talk about carbon credits. And, let me start off by saying I hate carbon credits.
They are such a lazy way of getting credit (literally) for not actually doing anything. I won’t even bore you with all of the reasons carbon credits are greenwashing and kind of outdated. If you want to learn more, scroll to the bottom of this article and I'll share some educational resources.
Instead, when it comes to shipping, here is what you should care about:
The heavier something weighs, the more it costs to ship and the more fuel it takes to move it.
So, if you really care about shipping, you want to make sure companies are shipping in lightweight compostable poly mailers with no added fluff like tissue paper or other “unboxing experience” nonsense.
Instead of this influencer question, I want you to write a request.
“Can you please ship my item in a simple mailer with no added tissue paper or extras?”
Boom, you are taking control of your own carbon footprint! Instead of taking the easy way out with carbon credits.
Who makes your products? (as specific as possible, please). Aside from the people who make your products, tell me about your team culture and how your head office/staff are treated. E.g. living wages, bonuses, staff wellbeing.
Please remember my fashion revolution story here. Ritu made your clothes . . . now what? What does that prove? Does asking this question really help you figure out how to avoid greenwashing?
You’ve got a face and a name . . . but not much more.
This is a tricky question designed to make you think you are connected to the brand, when in reality, the person you feel you are helping could be made up.
Yeah, I said what I said. It could all be a lie.
Now, let’s talk about brands coming back from their sourcing trips and talking about everything they learned and the people they met in order to prove they understand their supply chains.
I would like to add that most brands go and visit their factories for two weeks out of the year. There is so much they miss in that short amount of time. It’s basically the factory putting on a show for them.
So, we need to normalize the fact that most brands (unless they live in the country they make in) don’t really have that great of a grasp on their supply chains or the people making their clothes.
Their relationship is as extensive as a celebrity meet-and-greet at a comic con convention. Yeah, you met them. Yeah, you chatted and asked some questions. But you aren’t part of the inner circle.
As soon as we can all admit to ourselves that a two-week vacation working with a factory does not make you a real expert, the sooner this industry can change.
Seriously, I know a girl who runs around calling herself an Indian supply chain expert. She took a vacation for two weeks to India about 10 years ago and still tells the same stories to make her sound like she knows what she is talking about when she doesn’t have a clue. (She also steals stories from me and pretends they are her lived experiences – 🤦♀️).
Instead of brands telling their stories about their trip to India, Africa, insert some other developing country here, they should allow the factory owners to be front and center in communicating what goes on in their walls.
Because the reality is, brands have little to no control over what happens in a factory. So, they should pass the mic and let the people that make the day-to-day decisions speak.
So, instead of asking a brand, “Who makes your products?” you can ask: “What factory do you work with, and do you have any additional resources of the owner speaking?”
As for the second part of the question: “How do you foster diversity and equity in your business? – practical examples please. Eg. Diversity of models/staff etc.”
A better alternative to asking a lazy question like this would be to look at the brand's images. Jump on LinkedIn and look at their employees. Look at who they partner with and are tagged with.
This is something you can easily figure out on your own. Save your questions for something better.
ADDITIONAL TIPS TO HELP YOU AVOID SUPPORTING GREENWASHING AS A CONSUMER
GET YOUR ADVICE FROM EXPERTS, NOT INFLUENCERS
As I look at the top influencers in the sustainable fashion space and all the dominating voices talking about how to avoid greenwashing, I notice that they all have one thing in common:
They have never worked in fashion.
None of them.
And this is wild to me.
Would you get your medical advice from someone who woke up one day and decided they had read enough WebMD articles to deem themselves an “expert”?
I hope not.
So why are we doing that with fashion? Why are you getting sustainability efforts and best practices from people who aren't even in the industry?
Personally, I think it goes back to a lack of education.
I truly believe that uneducated journalists writing articles think that anyone can just “do fashion.” They don’t realize that people like me go to school for extremely niched things (like making textiles), and it takes decades to learn the ins and outs of the industry.
Real experts take decades to become. Not by trust fund kids who spend 100+ hours googling "sustainable fashion".
I think journalists think fashion is like cooking. Anyone can do it; some just better than others.
So, when you are reading these lists of questions and trying to get educated on how you can change the industry, look for the experts . . . not the influencers. This is my first piece of advice for you.
WHAT MAKES ME AN EXPERT?
I'm in a really unique position because I get to view the fashion industry from so many different vantage points:
I have a brand, so I understand what it’s like dealing with a problematic factory.
I represent factories, so I understand what it’s like working with entitled nightmare brands who want to say they are doing all the eco and ethical things but not actually pay for them.
And lastly, I get it from a customer perspective because I buy clothes and I also watch and read the news.
NOT TO BE RUDE, BUT MAYBE, KEEP YOUR QUESTIONS TO YOURSELF…
As someone who works with small brands, these endless lists of questions are a pain in the butt. Most small brands who are trying to do the right thing are teams of one, or like, one, and an intern or a family member. They literally don’t have the manpower to sit at their computers and answer the minutiae of their supply chain for a $30 profit.
The other thing is, the big brands that do have the resources to field all your questions are usually the ones who are greenwashing the most.
So, with these questions that are meant to expose the underbelly of the fashion industry, the opposite actually ends up happening. Customers start trusting big brands with expensive marketing teams crafting well greenwashed responses over the tiny team doing the best they can.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. We need to look for long-term solutions in fashion, not quick hits of satisfaction like a copy and paste email chain of questions.
IF YOU MUST ASK
Before you open gmail and click compose, I want you to ask yourself these questions.
Why do I want to know these things? Are you really trying to figure out how to avoid greenwashing, or is it something else...
What is the alternative?
Did I do my own (extensive) research?
Let me explain why these questions are important.
WHY DO I WANT TO KNOW THESE THINGS
I am on the other side of so many of these ask-the-brand questions. And for the most part, like 99% of the time, the people who are asking were never going to be customers. They are just looking for their “aha, gotcha” moment. Something they can use in a desperate attempt to try and go viral on social media.
Remember how at the start of this post I mentioned most "influcners" in the conscious fashion space become famous for cancelling someone?
I have seen it time and time again with influencers – their follower counts surge every time they encourage their minions to raise their pitchforks and cancel a brand.
If that is you, please stop.
Remember, there are people on the other side of that email doing their best. If you are looking for trouble, I suggest you go find it somewhere else. There are so many better things you can do with your time than stress out already stressed out entrepreneurs.
WHAT IS THE ALTERNATIVE?
No brand is perfect. I think consumers think that brands should have everything all figured out or they should not be in business (this is actually something that many out-of-touch influencers preach - the idea that if you aren't perfect, don't even bother).
But that’s crazy.
Have you heard the saying, don’t throw stones when you live in a glass house?
Meaning, no one is perfect. When you reach out to brands, understand they are doing what they can, and be open to their imperfections.
DID I DO MY OWN RESEARCH – LIKE A LOT OF IT
And, lastly, most of the questions I see customers bothering brands with can easily been found on the brands’ websites.
Read. Don’t skim.
Really dig. Don’t expect easy answers.
Today, you have access to so much more information (often information strategically crafted by marketers) than we did even three years ago. If you want brands to change, you need to meet them halfway. And to do that, you need to do your own research. And ask questions from a place of compassion, not an interrogation.
All of these influencer questions are form letters. Made for mass copy and paste blasting.
Saving the fashion industry is not as easy as a copy-and-paste, change-the-brand-name, press send.
To really start having conversations and understanding what you are buying, you need to ask very specific questions tailored to the brand's values, and your own.