Awareness is growing around the fashion industry's damaging environmental impact and while many brands are trying to tackle this stigma by introducing "eco" and "green" product lines, they might inadvertently achieve the opposite by sinking deeper into the issue through "greenwashing".

Climate change is a rapidly growing public concern and there is hardly a sector that does not play a role in it. The fashion industry has been estimated to account for 4% of our global annual greenhouse gas emissions (source: Fashion on climate, Global Fashion Agenda and McKinsey, 2020) and, according to the World Resources Institute, the sector's environmental footprint is expected to grow by 60% by 2030. The operations of fashion businesses, particularly those in the fast-fashion industry, are coming under increased scrutiny in respect of how they tackle the problem.

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of this concern, leading to more conscious decision-making and a greater inclination to purchase products that are better for the environment. The fashion industry is responsive to the issue in a variety of ways but, most commonly, through the introduction of "environmentally friendly" product ranges.

There has been a significant increase in fashion items being labelled as "eco-friendly", "vegan", "organic", "ethical", "sustainable" or just plain "green". All these taglines are generally associated with being less polluting, eco-friendly and better for the planet and its people; but what do these claims actually mean? Do they really have a positive impact on the environment compared to other items similar in nature, or are these just misleading claims about their environmental credentials?

The practice of making false or misleading eco-friendly claims is known as "greenwashing" and such false marketing is becoming an increasingly serious consumer protection issue, so much so that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) moved "greenwashing" high up on its agenda last year, turning its eye on the fashion industry.

In July 2022, the CMA started investigating sustainability claims made by ASOS, Boohoo and George at Asda concerning their fashion products, including clothing, footwear, and accessories. To date, it is still yet to conclude whether these green claims do stack up or are misleading, which shows the complexity of the issue.

The CMA states that its review will "examine environmental claims across the fashion retail sector in the UK to determine whether or not businesses are complying with consumer protection law". Where the CMA identifies businesses that it considers to be guilty of greenwashing, it states that it will take "appropriate action" (though it is not clear at this point what that action entails).

The biggest concern with generic "green" claims is that they are too vague, and their presence does not necessarily mean that the item is actually better for the environment. Clothing items labelled with the claim of "made from recycled plastic" is a good example to take a closer look at the issue.

  • First, recycled plastic may only be one small component of the garment along with several others, however the consumer may be under the impression that the entire garment is manufactured from recycled plastic, which would be misleading.
  • Second, recycled PET bottles turned into recycled polyester will probably not be used again, which leads to the end of the recycled PET bottles' lifecycles. So instead of turning PET bottles to materials that can be recycled again, we potentially create more waste (as noted by McKinsey & Company in The State of Fashion).
  • In either case, it is not factually incorrect to state that the item is "made from recycled plastic". Yet, the connotation that the item is somehow better for the environment because of it, is not necessarily true.

One key concern is that most "green" fashion items come hand-in-hand with premium pricing. In general, consumers that are consciously purchasing such items are doing so because they believe the items are environmentally friendly, which (to the consumer's mind) justifies the higher price tag. The fact that this belief may not be entirely true leads to the controversiality of greenwashing.

The fashion industry may see an opportunity to make products more attractive through their "eco-friendly" lines, yet a careful approach should be applied as consumer backlash can have an even bigger impact if such claims are proven to be false or misleading.

ESG issues remain a critical factor for the fashion industry, and retail in general, as businesses seek to develop better and more sustainable products and supply chains. However, even with the best intentions, it can be difficult for brands to navigate in the woods of green claims as the area is not (yet) regulated.

With a crackdown on greenwashing claims in the fashion industry now being seen across Europe, there is an increased risk of "greenhushing", whereby businesses stop communicating on their ESG initiatives altogether for fear of regulatory and reputational backlash. In other words, saying nothing at all is seen as preferable to saying the wrong thing.

While regulatory guidance would provide welcomed clarity with respect to sustainability claims, both for businesses and consumers alike, there are steps that can be taken now to improve the situation, pending the implementation of such guidance. For example, businesses could consider the adoption of more specific claims related to their products, seeking to back up such claims with a robust substantiation process through gathering supply chain information and understanding where and how the components of the items are sourced. A win-win situation can be achieved as the meaning of claims with respect to the environmental impact will be clearer to consumers and brands will not fall foul of allegations of greenwashing.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.