You see a picture as you’re scrolling through Instagram. It’s a healthy, happy and glowing woman, surrounded by plants and basking in the midday heat in some beautiful garden. She’s wearing a clean-cut, stylish midi dress which instantly makes you want to check your online banking and frantically add to cart. The caption? ‘Conscious style for everyone’.
You’re sold. You took it at face value, as you should. You thought, how can a brand tell me it’s ethical when it’s not, right?
Welcome to the complexities and utterly infuriating world of greenwashing.
After a few clicks on their site, you see it’s made of ‘100% organic cotton’ in Bangladesh but there’s no sign of any more information beyond that. The brand assumed you’d be plicated by seeing the words ‘organic’ and ‘conscious’ in fact, they’re counting on it. In a bid to meet the bare minimum in terms of ethical, brands are hiding behind buzz words. We’re here to help you navigate through the jumble of jargon spat out by brands.
We’ve created a no nonsense list of buzz words and how to bust them:
This is meaningless. All brands should be conscious of their impact on people and the planet. Unless there’s tangible evidence that they pay a living wage at all production stages and have an environmental impact report, this means ZILCH.
The word is thrown around by good and bad brands alike but at least with sustainable companies, they’ll be proud to show you how they’re achieving this and it won’t be hard to find on their website. If the word conscious is referring to a small subsection of a brand’s collection, this is bad news too I’m afraid. This is shameless target hitting by having a shop window full of ‘conscious’ and a multi-storey shop full of not so ethical behind it.
Sorry H&M, we’re looking at you.
We’re going to go into a lot more depth on this issue in another article but the crux of it is, transparent doesn’t mean ethical. Just because you can see the picture clearly doesn’t mean you’re going to like it. A brand could be transparent and let you know that your clothes were made in china, the cotton was produced in India and milled there too.
What they haven’t said was, their staff aren’t paid a living wage, they’re forced to work long hours and the pollution from the dyes that go into making their clothes enter a main drinking water pool. They’ve told you the truth but only half of it and often brands deploy another clever trick to stop you asking more questions, factory photos. How nice as a consumer to see the happy, smiling faces of those who made our clothes. The good brands have their founders in the photos, taken whilst doing regular audits, demonstrating an in-depth knowledge of the inner workings of their own company. The bad brands have the ethical equivalent of stock imagery, with no guarantee it was taken in the same factory, let alone whether it was staged.
Eco, well Eco anything.
If you want a product to look sustainable, what’s easier than slapping the word eco in front? Claims of natural ingredients or fabrics is a sure-fire way to mislead consumers and brands can’t get enough. The product might be made of organic cotton, sure but the company may have made no effort to conserve water in this incredibly water-intensive process. They may also produce the cotton or the garment in a high-risk country, where labour laws are frequently flouted.
Then there’s the packaging. This kind of branding often comes hand in hand with manilla brown, textured paper packaging to reinforce a natural look and feel. Has the brand made attempts to limit deforestation? CO2 emissions in production?
The little things start to add up when you unpack that little hessian covered parcel and so many brands would much prefer you didn’t.
Even if they walked to you, whilst simultaneously eliminating the exact same amount of carbon they produce; companies claiming they’re carbon neutral isn’t as good as it sounds or particularly transparent.
What they should say is ‘We’re trying to offset the carbon footprint we have as a business by donating to credible offsetting organisations and putting a plan in place to reduce our emissions, effective immediately.’
Easier to understand but much harder to commit to. Often brands will continue to stomp their very heavy carbon footprint across the globe from production to delivery whilst investing in organisations who can do the offsetting for them. Why? Because to change would be expensive, it would be slower and it would be a more complicated model to run.
So, in theory, they can claim they’re carbon neutral, throw money at other organisations and proudly wear the badge of neutral and fabulous across all of their marketing material. More importantly, they haven’t actually changed their practices in order to qualify. Some companies are doing more than others and have more credibility in this space but it’s worth being wary as not all claims were made equally.
A little good is great but when you’re in the global game, you can do much better than donating the problem away.
A word we like a lot but what on earth does it mean? The two dictionary defined meanings are:
- able to be maintained at a certain rate or level
- able to be upheld or defended
If a brand tells you that they’re sustainable, they should be able to demonstrate maintaining impeccable standards of practice, maintain them and tell you (loudly and passionately) about it.
If a brand was standing in front of you, as a person, would you put your faith in them? If they told you that they cared about the planet but their job was running a sweatshop in Cambodia, would you want to support them? Brands have an identity. Marketing to us as consumers is effectively their opportunity to tell us the truth about what makes them great. More often than not, the truth isn’t so great so they pack their empty promises into sustainable pledges.
Being sustainable in any industry is keeping up the good work. In the fashion industry, this means fair pay, safe labour, workers rights, producing less and leaving the planet the way you found it. When you put it like that, how many brands can really claim they are sustainable?
You’d need a PhD in philosophy, law and a myriad of other subjects to properly unpick the principles of ethics and even then there would still be room for debate. Yet, we see this word a lot in the sustainable fashion scene.
At its core, being ethical in fashion is both knowing the distinction between right and wrong and actively choosing the right path when running your label. Clear information needs to be immediately accessible by anyone on care for staff, environmental impact and the use of animal products to truly be ethical.
If they can’t show you they know what’s right and have chosen the right way, what have they got to hide? If a brand says they’re ethical, look at their sustainability section on their page. If they don’t have that section, it’s time to rethink your purchase and delve deeper.
We all have barometers for how much we’re willing to accept before we make a purchase. It’s a vast scale and whilst we’d love if everyone to buy less, choose well and make it last; we know that the journey to being ethical is often a long one, made up of progress and small changes.
The best thing you can do is be inquisitive. Honestly, it’s true. The more you feel in control of your wardrobe and the more you discover about fast fashion, the more you’ll want to join us in fighting for a radically different fashion industry.
We’re pretty confident about that because that’s how Nn was formed.
So start asking questions, start challenging your favourite brands to live up to the buzz words they drop into your Insta ads. Let’s see if they can stand up to the promises they’ve made in marketing to you.