How fashion brands can “Go Green” without greenwashing
One of the largest threats facing our world is the ongoing climate crisis, and this understanding has filtered its way into our consumer habits. Reducing our environmental impact is no longer just a buzzy phrase touted by hippie do-gooders and trendy brands sniffing around for some brownie points—it’s essential to our survival.
Customers recognize this, too. Products marketed as sustainable ranging from cleaning products to pet treats, grew 6x faster than conventional products between 2013-2018.
The sustainable fashion industry was valued at $6.25 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow to $8.25 billion by 2023—with no end to the growth in sight.
Not only do we owe it to the planet to reduce our carbon emissions through production and supply chains, but it’s also what consumers now demand when they’re looking to buy. And for an industry as notoriously unethical and unsustainable as retail fashion, it’s never been more important than ever to embrace sustainability, from manufacturing to marketing.
It ain’t easy being green, but it’s sure easy to greenwash
“Greenwashing” refers to spending more resources on giving your company the appearance of social and environmental values— through campaigns and ads—than actually building these values into your business.
One example? Everlane, which launched in 2010 as a first-of-its-kind DTC apparel brand, touted its commitment to “radical transparency.” However, pull back the soft, muted linen curtain, and what you’ll find is a lack of accountability. From questionable worker wages, no credible certifications to speak of, fairly ordinary fabrics no more sustainable than those used by average store brands, and history of anti-Black corporate behavior and union-busting.
Another known culprit of greenwashing, H&M, made headlines after the Norwegian Consumer Authority criticized their Conscious collection for its lack of transparency around the environmental impact of their materials.
Only a fraction of the textiles collected from their so-called “Recycling program” were recycled at all. Yet for every bag of clothes dropped off, the company gives out a coupon for your next purchase—thus re-introducing even more clothes to the cycle, eventually ending up in a landfill.
How to build a brand that makes a difference
So in an ocean of brands that talk the talk, how do you walk the walk? How do you distinguish yourself from the other so-called “mission-driven” brands out there making unfounded claims about their values and sustainability targets?
Well, for one, you have to recognize that there is a problem and hold yourself accountable for helping with the solution. You should measure out your impact in numbers and understand what those numbers mean. Recognize that customers are becoming more discerning when it comes to why they purchase what they purchase.
Here’s how the pros do it.
One way to build trust and credibility with your audience is by looking into certifications. Not only do these third-party certifications help to earn trust from your customers, but their criteria also offer actionable guidelines on how to measure and improve your impact.
Certified B Corp, bluesign, Textile Exchange, Global Organic Textile Standard, and Forest Stewardship Council are just a handful of third-party certifications that look at the traceability and manufacturing of materials, waste management, energy use, and social benefit of a company.
bluesign, for example, traces textile manufacturing to ensure that all bluesign-approved companies use the most sustainable processes, from recycling to textile innovation, to create new materials. Textile Exchange offers a suite of standards that cover responsible sourcing of down, wool, and mohair and traceability of recycled materials.
Maybe the best-known certification standard is Certified B Corporation, overseen by the non-profit organization B Lab. They count companies like Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, Allbirds, Kotn, and Girlfriend Collective among their cohort. Certified B Corporations assign scores for each company, factoring in the treatment of workers, relationships with their surrounding communities, and overall social impact.
Show, don’t tell
While certifications help lend credibility to a brand, they only tell half the story. The average customer is not likely going to individually look into what the certifications mean and what standards are used to verify them. It’s up to brands to fill in the blanks.
There’s a reason why “radically transparent” is such an effective tagline—it’s what people expect now. 67% of consumers believe that brands are responsible for providing complete product information, and 37% of consumers would switch to brands that were more transparent with their product information.
Patagonia, a global leader in sustainable fashion and corporate good, has also taken the extra step in brand transparency with their Footprint-mapping feature on every product page. When you click on an item, you’ll get information on where it’s made, with links to find more information about the factory and the materials used to make it. If there’s a fiber that they haven’t sustainably sourced—like Spandex—they’ll mention it and explain why and how they’re addressing it.
The lesson here is clear: truly sustainable companies aren’t going to spout platitudes on social media and then bury their goals and priorities in a hidden disclaimer located at the bottom of their home page. Their actions are proving how they’re changing the game.
Don’t dumb it down for your customers
So climate change seems simple—it’s caused by carbon dioxide emissions and other harmful greenhouse gases that get released into the atmosphere, trap heat from the sun and warm the earth’s temperatures,
But those greenhouse gases come from everywhere: from cow burps, from burning fossil fuels, from manufacturing new materials, and landfills packed with all of our discarded stuff. It’s a science and one that covers every function of our everyday lives. So at some point, you’re going to get in the weeds.
That means being able to measure your impact, whether that’s in emissions or some other metric that makes sense for your company, and tie it directly to your manufacturing and supply chain.
Allbirds make shoes out of sustainably sourced natural materials like merino wool, eucalyptus trees, and recycled plastic bottles. They’re so devoted to their carbon impact that they’ve decided to list each pair of shoes’ carbon emissions right on the package.
Not only do these numbers demonstrate their devotion to lowering their impact—after all, knowing their emissions is the first step to reducing it—it also lends credibility to their mission statement. Because what’s more compelling? A blanket label of “planet-friendly” on a shoebox, or a precise number representing a carbon footprint along with the promise to do better? We think the latter.
Don’t claim to be perfect
Treading the line between climate optimism and climate realism is tricky. On the one hand, people will see right through you if you act like you’re Superman swooping in to save us all from planetary devastation. On the other hand, you don’t want to bum anyone out while they’re shopping for shoes.
Noah is a men’s apparel company that quickly catapulted itself into the closets of the trendiest fashion bloggers and style-watchers for its understated military and nautical-inspired streetwear and devotion to sustainable manufacturing.
But where other brands might post their accomplishments in offsetting carbon emissions or meticulous sourcing, Noah took the candid approach with a blog post titled “We Are Not a Sustainable Company.”
Sure, they’re a responsible company, but their 80% pre-and post-recycled cashmere sweaters? Not that ground-breaking. Their minimalist Kraft paper packages? Well, according to them, they suck—both for the customer experience and for the planet. But, they add, they’re actively looking for suggestions on improving their packaging.
Noah is hardly the worst offender, but by acknowledging how far they need to go to help make a harmful industry less toxic, the message they’ve sent to their customers is: We’re going to get there eventually. You can hold us to that. Come along and see how.
Seek good company
There are plenty of companies that want to help you with your sustainability goals. From offsetting the carbon emissions from shipping to helping run your-inhouse recycling program, these logistical partners can step in and fill in the gaps of what you may be unable to do at scale.
So let’s start with shipping. Shipping is a resource-intensive process, but add on next-day delivery, international shipping by plane and returns, and the carbon emissions rise even higher. Platforms such as Shopify and Etsy make it easier for retailers by offering shipping carbon offsets through third-party carbon offset companies like Pachama, which reinvest carbon credits to help sustainability projects worldwide. Cloverly is another carbon offset company that can work with you to help neutralize your emissions for everything from the supply chain, shipping, employee commutes, and flights.
Packaging waste is also a huge problem - it’s used to house an item during its journey and immediately thrown in the trash, only to end up in a landfill. However, TerraCycle has found ways to recover even the most hard-to-recycle items, like coffee bags, cosmetics cases, and even cigarette butts. They’ve even partnered with brands like Lush and Package Free to set up in-store recycling programs.
There’s nothing stopping e-commerce companies from establishing their mail-in recycling program. Even though they have a brick-and-mortar location, Ethical Bean has a nationwide presence and offers a free bag of coffee with every 12 bags of empty coffee bags that get mailed in. What a way to build customer loyalty and share the love at the same time!
Be a front-runner towards the green future
While there are many ways around it, the goal of sustainability is pretty simple - just lower the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from each stage of your business. Maybe that takes the form of producing your products using recycled materials, like water bottles or plastic bags. Or sourcing all-natural materials that rely on less carbon-intensive processes to harvest and process.
It’s not going to be easy. That’s why so many companies out there would rather put a green label on their products and call it a day.
But the tide is shifting—more and more businesses have to start reassessing their impact. By building sustainability into your business, you’ll be future-proofing your brand, getting ahead of the competition, and setting an example for all who will follow.