As the world begins to reckon with the impact of climate change, the call for companies to reduce their carbon footprints is growing. Every year, the reality of a world succumbing to human harm grows grimmer, yet the companies causing the most harm cannot seem to get past virtue signalling as their method of changing the course of an environmental disaster. The fashion industry has quickly become one of the largest threats to climate as the veil of “green” practices covers the reality of an industry frankly built off destroying the Earth.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has determined that the fast fashion industry alone is responsible for approximately 10% of annual carbon dioxide emissions. Beyond this is the textile waste, extensive water use, toxic chemicals, and the emissions created from transporting these items add on to the impact this industry has on the health of the Earth. It is a trapped cycle of purchasing cheap items in order to save our own money that contributes to the global capitalist system, fueling the destruction of the Earth. Moreover, companies creating quick, cheap, and mass made products are almost always tied to human rights violations for their workers, as well as the threat they pose to the climate.
A single pair of jeans can take one thousand eight hundred litres of water to produce. North Americans throw away upwards of ten million tons of clothing annually, 95% of which can be reused in some capacity. Cotton products require the use of approximately a third of a pound of pesticides while the production of common synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester uses the extremely harmful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. Every item of clothing has an impact.
Greenwashing as a practice entails creating a facade of environmental friendliness. Companies create entire marketing campaigns surrounding the impacts of climate change or even entire product lines that are deemed to be aiding in the fight against climate change yet the company itself fails to put action behind these empty calls for climate justice. These rare products in a line-up of unsustainably made items that dominate the company marketplace. The use of the colour green itself has been used to allow for consumers to automatically connect the company to what we have most often seen in climate-related activism.
Companies who have been found to be using greenwashing tactics are extensive. H & M, Zara, & Other Stories, Aritzia, ASOS, they all fall under the category of vague practices or even blatant disregard for their climate impact while still promoting the “sustainable” products they claim to produce. The responsibility must be put to the companies to restructure the way they look at business as not only short term monetary gain, but as a vessel for building a better and truly sustainable future.
A stark example of this for college aged students is the clothing company Aritzia. Though they have a dedicated page on their site to their supposed sustainability efforts and have created products marketed as being made with “sustainable materials”, they have yet to take concrete actions to truly minimize their impact on the environment. Aritzia features the sustainability aspect of their business far more than they actually utilize it. The majority of products sold by them are not sustainably made and fail to meet the standards necessary to be deemed environmentally friendly. There is a failure to take action beyond campaigns and simple steps to limit, but not reduce their impacts.
Juxtaposed to Aritzia is clothing company The Foundationals which creates its products with the environmental impact in mind at every step of the manufacturing and consumption process. Each item is made in a limited quantity to ensure that there is not excessive product waste if they are not purchased. Materials used are recycled or sustainable with full transparency publicly available so that you know exactly where every item is coming from. All shipping materials are additionally recycled, and the company is currently taking steps towards developing reusable packaging to eliminate single-use packaging entirely. There are not false claims of sustainable materials that are hard to trace. Every aspect of their environmental efforts are clearly laid out for consumers to be aware of the impact their purchase has on the planet.
Many of the companies that engage in this phenomenon fall under the realm of the fashion industry. Notably, a large portion of these companies market to those in the high school and post secondary age range. Targeting an age group vulnerable to quick fixes and cheap alternatives allows these initiatives to thrive. Easy to access trendy items under the guise of environmental friendliness gives way to individuals making decisions they falsely believe will be better towards the global climate.
This is not to say fast fashion and other mass made products shall be deemed as solely wrong to purchase. Personal circumstances leave many individuals stuck with what they can afford to purchase. Choices for sustainability are limited when the monetary funds are not readily available to you. However, if the choice is free to our own judgement, conscious consumerism is a practice that must be strongly considered. To buy ethically and sustainably is reserved nearly exclusively for a privileged sub-set of society, thus necessitating the need to work towards abolishing false claims of environmentalism while simultaneously increasing the availability of truly sustainable products for individuals in all financial brackets.
This notion of conscious consumerism is rooted in making informed decisions. Having the background knowledge of a brand’s policies and active work to improve their impact on the climate crisis is essential to purchasing items that are supportive of the fight for climate justice. Good on you is a site and app that allows for just this. With a simple search of the brand or company you are curious about, it provides a rating of each aspect of its ethical components. The three main categories of people, planet, and animals are all comprehensively rated based on what the company makes public. If there is not enough information available to indicate they are actively making strides to reduce or eliminate their environmental impacts entirely, they are rated as being “not good enough” or as a company to avoid purchasing from entirely. Tools such as ‘Good on You’ have simplified informed purchases to a point that makes conscious consumerism more accessible to those with the financial means to do so.
Consumers must look further than the environmental page on a company’s site to see the reality of what is being done. As the climate crisis rears its head into our daily lives, it is unavoidable for companies to have to reckon with the role they are playing. It is easy for them to take the easy way out; to use the same practices, just with a few extra “sustainable” items thrown in the mix. There is no true sustainability without action at all levels. If every product sold is not held to an equal standard, there is no possibility a company can truly be as climate friendly as they advertise themselves to be.
In a world of corporate dominance, it is not surprising to see false claims of environmental initiatives have peaked. It is a realm in which the dollar is worth more than a life. One in which we can sacrifice future wellbeing for the sake of momentary gain. Greenwashing is a small picture phenomenon in a big picture world. There is a need to see past the gain to be had in the moment to the harm being done by the companies deceiving customers into thinking they are bettering the environment only to once again be falling into the trap of fast fashion. Responsibility ultimately lies in the hands of the companies and the consumers to change practices at both the production and consumption levels. We as consumers are most definitely not perfect. Though I do make a conscious effort to support more ethical companies, I have slipped into the trap of easy, accessible, and greenwashed product lines. Making mindful choices sways the power balance in the consumer-corporation paradigm. It may not be every purchase made, but changing spending habits to align with one’s morals is a step towards eliminating the success of greenwashed campaigns and allowing truly “green” companies to thrive.