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[Student Perspective] Greenwashed Away — Fashion Shoppers Flounder Amid Sea of Misleading Marketing

The research is in -- consumers care about the environment, especially Gen-Z shoppers who say it is top of mind. More often than not, customers want to feel good about themselves with their purchasing behavior, and are eagerly looking for ways to do just that -- prove themselves to be eco-conscious by buying earth-friendly products.

The problem is, how do we (or the consumer) know what makes something “sustainable”? The term itself defies quantification as a marketing label and is injudiciously applied to everything from so-called “clean” beauty products, to recycled polyester leggings. A slew of certifications and labels that can be applied with as little as 30% fiber content are mixed together with mushy marketing terms like “eco-friendly”, “earth friendly” and “natural”, resulting in a mess of buzzword soup impossible to parse for the truth. 

Some greenwashing claims are so obvious they aren’t worth real scrutiny. For instance, there is no such thing as “ethical fast fashion.” Any store releasing new garments on a weekly or biweekly basis, a breakneck speed demanded to meet trend and consumption hunger, is participating in the fast fashion monolith machine. And while they can tout mission through garments made with recycled or more-sustainable materials, anything produced with that rapidity, in that volume, and at that price point (i.e., cheap), cannot coexist with true sustainable production and consumption. The greenwashing problem seems to have possibly hit its peak recently, with sustainable darlings like Allbirds and Everlane being called out for lacking true transparency and authenticity in their sustainability claims. 

While there remains a gap between what companies claim their products are and the distant truth, the remedy lies in improved legislative and labeling guidance, rules around advertising and claims, and supply-chain transparency. The good news is, some brands are seeing the writing on the wall as well, anticipating upcoming market mandates, like those likely being actioned in the UK by the Competition and Market Authority later this year. Similar calls for action are being made of the Federal Trade Commission in the US, which has not updated its guidance on greenwashing since 2012. 

Until these policies and protections are in place, consume responsibly and when buying clothing ask yourself: Can I buy something similar second-hand instead? Are the materials this garment is made of renewable, recycled, or low-impact in any way? Does the brand I am shopping offer transparency to its supply chain? And remember -- if it is priced cheaply, it is not often for good reason.