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  • Valerie Fang

Greenwashing: A Commentary

Note: this article is a collaboration between me & Grace, a fellow CNM Types writer!

A aerial view of PT Pan Brothers’ textile factory in Indonesia. PT Pan Brothers’ is one of the main clothing suppliers for brands such as Ralph Lauren, Prada and Adidas. Image source: Bloomberg

In recent years, thrifting has become a phenomenon in Singapore, especially prevalent to the youth generation. ‘Thrifting in Singapore’, ‘10 Best Thrift Stores’, these are titles we will often see on online sites and YouTube videos. While many youths are turning towards thrifting as a new and better purchase decision, fast fashion is still the obvious and conventional option. Fashion waste also remains a recurring problem. The fashion industry produces, on average, 92 million tonnes of waste and is one of the world’s biggest sources of water pollution.

What exacerbates the situation is the phenomenon of ‘Greenwashing’. Fast fashion brands greenwash their brand by providing the public with misleading information in regards to their sustainability. Brands are presented to be more sustainable and more environmentally-conscious than they actually are!

Greenwashing in Fast Fashion

For instance, Zara & H&M, the biggest global fast fashion brands, provide recycling bins for customers to recycle their used clothes from the brand. However, here lies two issues. One, customers could never recycle more than they purchase. From the picture below, it is illustrated that the brands reward customers for recycling by……providing them additional discounts for their future purchases. Yes, recycling clothes back to the brands help them to collect more second-hand materials for future production. However, as customers are essentially encouraged to buy more, their future purchases from the same shop would only contribute to more fashion waste!

Texts printed on recycle bins in H&M stores, which often comes with additional benefits to motivate customers in recycling. Image source: The Tennessean

Two, efforts which brands promise to make, such as reusing their materials, may not even be followed through. An article by the Harvard Business Review revealed that most of the recycled fabrics collected by fast fashion brands in fact end up in landfills. Another focus series, Marketplace, by CBC News, exposes H&M for reselling the recycled clothes to shops in less-developed countries. The brands provide the illusion that customers are benefiting the environment. Yet, in reality, they are only making surface-level efforts towards transforming the harmful fast fashion industry. Simultaneously, customers fall prey to a strategy that these brands are using to encourage a consumption habit that would only create more textile waste in the future.

How about Sustainable Fashion?

Statistics have shown that in 2021, sustainable fashion holds a mere 3.9% in the global clothing market share. Image source: Unsplash, by Priscilla Du Preez

On the completely opposite end we have sustainable fashion, which focuses on a sustainable production of apparel. Unfortunately, the mainstream portrayal of sustainable fashion can be greatly flawed. Many of us believe that sustainable fashion has to be of a certain aesthetic from an ethical brand that comes with an exorbitant price tag. (think crisp silhouettes and neutral tones which echo the colours of Earth). When in actuality, sustainable fashion goes beyond these surface-level factors. It concerns an apparel’s entire manufacturing process and its lifespan, with the overall goal of reducing the negative environmental impacts brought about by fast fashion.

Size-inclusivity is another huge issue in sustainable fashion where plenty of sustainable brands only go up to an XL, or US12. Have a quick glance at ANY local or international brands that focuses on sustainability, and you would find a lack of apparel size that caters to people who are less thin. While this is a disappointing observation, there is a plausible reasoning behind it.

Cost of production. For clothing to be sustainable, the manufacturing process needs to be carefully looked into. The textiles utilised and manpower hired will be ethical and price-worthy, which will definitely increase the production costs. Having a range of sizes would only increase the price of the final products, something that already puts sustainable brands at a massive disadvantage against the cheap and accessible fast fashion.

However, with a lack of size-inclusivity, it sets sustainable fashion even more backwards in the intense competition of the overall fashion market. To put it bluntly, it is rather tone-deaf to expect the public to buy from ethical brands if they don’t carry sizes that work for the everyday person.

The idea of sustainable fashion, whilst “progressive”, fails to address the elephant in the room productively. Companies of sustainable brands would continue to price their items relatively high due to the higher costs of production. To add on, they could leverage on the public’s growing awareness and concern over the environment and they inflate their apparel prices beyond what is needed to make a profit. While people with higher incomes would be able to adopt to the pricing of sustainable brands, people with relatively middle and lower incomes may not be able to do so. The rich will continue to purchase expensively priced pieces, raising the overall industry pricing. They may have to look towards fast fashion like SHEIN, all whilst being gaslighted by the world that their lack of options contribute to climate change, resulting in a vicious cycle of ‘fashion inequality’.

With greenwashing becoming prevalent amongst big fashion brands, and sustainable fashion having difficulty in competing with the rest of the industry, we wonder: how will the industry be able to move towards better change? If they are not changing anytime soon, as individuals, what can we do about it?

Greenwashing beyond the Fashion Industry

As if this commentary isn't already dismal enough, it needs to be understood that greenwashing happens not only in the fashion industry. For every industry that has parties working towards sustainability, there will be big companies that greenwash their products. A less recent but familiar example could be Volkswagen, an international car brand that attempted to greenwash themselves. In 2015, they falsely presented their vehicle gas emissions to be lower than it is by installing a unique device in their vehicles that would rig the emission levels. Greenwashing is truly a malpractice that requires watchdogs of different industries to call the companies out for.

Here, we focus on fast fashion, because it is so closely related to our daily lives, and there is still hope! As individuals, we can work towards identifying greenwashing, and actively reject its intended effect on us, the customers.

What can we do as individuals?

Image source: TIPA

We can change our own consumption habits. This may sound counter-intuitive in light of the convenience brought about by online platforms and blogshops, and the incessant advertisements they present to us…. However, the choice is ultimately up to us. Taking a step back and really deciding for ourselves ‘Would this new shirt / pants be worn by myself in the long run? Am I currently under the influence of campaign marketing done by these fashion brands?’ could prevent us from caving in to our desires.

The topic of building a capsule wardrobe is also becoming prevalent. By finding your personal style and keeping a specific few pieces for multiple combinations of outfit, you would no longer think about purchasing the newest or the most in-trend items on the market!

In terms of donating any unwanted clothes, instead of returning them to fast fashion brands that could be more unpredictable in their actual efforts, the apparel could be donated to non-profit organisations. There are plenty of organisations in Singapore that would accept proper donations of clothings, from Salvation Army to New2U (managed by SCWO).

Let's all work together towards better consumption choices and look out for greenwashed companies!

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