Why sustainable brands might be lying to you


Consumers can be confused by terms like sustainable fashion. Photo: Jess @ Harper Sunday / Unsplash ((CC BY-SA)

Six thousand kilograms – what does that number mean to you?

Perhaps it represents the weight of an elephant or, maybe, it’s the weight of three cars combined.

Six thousand kilograms worth of textiles are dumped in Australian landfills, every 10 minutes.

Thanks to cheap labour and mass production, the fashion industry is the highest polluting industry in the world contributing around 10 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

As awareness of the industry’s environmental impact grows, people see sustainable brands as a way to reduce their carbon footprint in a clothes-obsessed world.

But are these brands really the solution or is their definition of sustainability just a deceptive marketing gimmick?

Buzzwords in lieu of change?

We’re all familiar with catchphrases like “made out of recycled and ethically sourced material” or “this item is biodegradable”.

The popularisation of these buzzwords has created a mindset in which consumers think a brand qualifies as sustainable and ethical if these words are plastered on their pieces.

While that may be the case for some brands, such words are not a sole indicator of what constitutes sustainable and ethical fashion.

Depending on one’s point of view, there can be a misunderstanding that sustainable fashion embodies ethical fashion – which causes sustainable and ethical means of production to be defined only through environmental and social impact.

PhD candidate and RMIT University School of Fashion and Textiles lecturer Rachel Lamarche says words like sustainable and ethical are “porous”.

“Our definition of sustainable and ethical can vary from our cultural background…something ethical here could mean something different somewhere else,” she says.

“The definition of ethical fashion that people often use is one that focuses on social impact and the way the production workers are being treated, buut to me, that is an incomplete definition.”

From an Australian point of view, ethical fashion is defined as a “multi-dimensional” construct that encompasses sustainability.

Research done by Vaughan Reimers, Bryce Magnuson and Fred Chao explored how ethical fashion is built on four elements which are slow fashion attributes, animal welfare, social responsibilities and environmental responsibilities (which is where sustainability lies).

While the detail in this definition contrasts with more popular views about sustainable fashion, Ms Lamarche believes there’s still a lot of overlap between all those concepts.

“I think what needs to rise to the surface is that there is no real clear definition, but we do understand that it relates to injustice because the real problem with unsustainable fashion isn’t just about the afterlife of the pieces,” she says.

Sustainability seems like an easy issue to fix given the presence of sustainable brands today but the reality is there’s no instant fix to this deep-rooted issue.

In fact, those brands can often be perpetrators of un-sustainable practices but disguise it by greenwashing – a marketing practice where sustainability is used to advertise an eco-friendly facade despite not making any real tangible changes to either the business practice or the product itself.

Textiles and fabrics

One of the biggest sources of industry greenwashing is sustainable fabrics and materials.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), approximately half of all textiles produced worldwide are made out of cotton.

The cultivation of cotton has severe impacts on the ecosystem as it uses pesticides and fertilizers that deplete soil health and water quality.

What might shock a lot of people is that bamboo – an alternative resource that’s known for its fast-growing nature and biodegradable fibres – is actually one of the most common examples of greenwashing.

Unlike cotton, ‘bamboo fibres’ in textiles aren’t natural fibres, but regenerated cellulose fibre.

Turning bamboo into fabric requires an engineered process that’s environmentally damaging, as the bamboo is made into pulp, mixed with solvents, and then extruded as lyocell – and 99 percent of that lyocell is then turned into viscose.

“It’s basically using a different raw source to create viscose rayon,” Ms Lamarche says.

“So in that sense, when we talk about bamboo and its environmental advantages without talking about the actual toxic environmental impacts of the bamboo itself in the production process, that would be greenwashing.”

Another form of greenwashing is the way the production of “clean” products is emphasized as a way to trigger “eco-conscious” consumerism.

Greenwashing is a widespread issue in the fashion industry as companies try to use sustainability for competitive advantages.

But without any regulations that legally define what those marketing-friendly buzzwords mean, there’s only so much that consumers can do to combat greenwashing.

“Not everyone can be educated on fibres or how clothes are generated, in the same sense that not everyone is educated on cars, but in an industry where sustainability has turned into an overarching goal, that’s where you need to figure out your definition of sustainable and ethical as the first step to avoid contributing to greenwashing,” Ms Lamarche says.

Because zero waste isn’t the only answer to sustainability and at the end of the day, no matter how convincing a brand’s performative marketing is, impactful decisions on what to purchase and where to purchase from lies with the consumer.