Greenwashing, or making exaggerated or false sustainability claims, has become a top concern as brands publicly announce aggressive climate targets and launch numerous collections with a planet-friendly label. Companies throughout the fashion sector and beyond are feeling pressure not only to make more environmentally and socially responsible business decisions, but also to effectively communicate those decisions to consumers.
At the beginning of the year, the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority began conducting a fashion- and footwear-focused review of environmental marketing claims that suggest products are “sustainable,” “better for the environment” or made from recycled or organic materials. If the agency finds any breaches of consumer law, it said it may take appropriate action even before the formal inquiry begins.
Though brands are charged with the difficult task of communicating the value of sustainable fashion to consumers, the language around sustainability has become so overused that they have lost their impact—specifically in denim, where buzzwords are routinely included in marketing.
As a result, many consumers are skeptical of brands’ environmental messaging. A recent survey by corporate sustainability organization Changing Markets Foundation and global data company YouGov found that 62 percent of consumers across Germany, France, Spain, the U.S. and U.K. either distrust or are uncertain about green claims made by the fashion industry. Looking at U.K. respondents alone, 74 percent expressed skepticism around this topic.
And it turns out that consumers’ skepticism is warranted: a Changing Markets Foundation report determined that 59 percent of all green claims by European and U.K. fashion brands are misleading. Some of the worst offenders are “sustainable” lines such as H&M’s Conscious Collection, in which synthetic fibers made up 72 percent of its collection—a higher proportion than its fast-fashion line, which contained 61 percent.
While there’s no simple way to decipher fluff from fact, there are several phrases and red flags to note when inspecting a garment for greenwashing.
Rivet called on consultants throughout the denim space to weigh in on key words and concepts that are most commonly used by brands exaggerating their sustainability efforts. Here’s what to look for:
Often times, jeans will be labeled as “recyclable” even when it’s impossible—or when there are so many obstacles to recycling that it may as well be impossible—to do so.
Experts agree that including any percentage of polyester hinders a textile’s recyclability, as there are few recycling technologies equipped to separate the plastic-based fiber. But according to Mohsin Sajid, owner and creative director at jeanswear label Endrime, if a garment contains less than 2 percent polyester, a company can still claim it’s recyclable.
“It’s horrific how many brands are greenwashing and confusing everyone,” he said.
And while the fabric makes up a large part of the garment, trims and thread must be considered as well. Sajid noted that “nearly every brand” that claims an item is recyclable uses metal trims that can’t be removed from the garment or uses polyester in the interlining or thread.
Instead, he recommends looking for jeans made of cellulosic fibers such as cotton, hemp and linen, all of which can be recycled, blended and then recycled again. Jeans that provide instructions for removing buttons or use buttons that unscrew are also positive indicators. In 2020, French trims supplier Dorlet invented the Diabolo, a removable button intended specifically for easier recycling.
(See also: ocean plastic, recycled PET, recycled polyester)
Because recycling apparel with even a small percentage of plastic-based fibers is so difficult, any mention of plastic in a company’s sustainability efforts could be cause for concern. Recycled PET, recycled polyester and ocean plastic are still forms of plastic, which are challenging to separate from other materials and are either slow or unable to degrade.
“Any mention of recycled polyester or ocean plastic instantly sets off my greenwashing alarms,” said denim design consultant Anne Oudard. “Plastic cannot and should never be associated with any kind of sustainable solutions.”
Plus, according to Ani Wells, sustainable denim and communication specialist and founder of Simply Suzette, recycled polyester hardly ever comes from recycled polyester apparel, and instead can come from recycled plastic bottles—and that’s an issue when considering that other industries could reuse the plastic in a way that extends its circular lifecycle.
For example, a plastic bottle can be repeatedly recycled into other plastic bottles—but once it’s recycled into apparel, its potential for future recycling diminishes.
And while “ocean-bound” or ocean plastic—in which plastic waste from the world’s waterways is turned into fiber—sounds like an environmentally conscious effort, it’s not always the case. Wells said the source of plastic waste is difficult to verify.
“Be cautious of ‘ocean plastic,’ especially if you don’t see a legitimate certification,” she said, advising consumers to look for traceability with these claims.
A brand touting a “sustainable capsule collection” or “sustainable collection” is another red flag for experts, who state that it typically represents a minuscule portion of a brand’s overall product range, yet gives it the runway to claim it’s a responsible brand.
“It’s time we stop looking at ‘sustainability’ product by product and instead look at a brand’s entire impact,” Wells said. “Once you start digging into a brand’s story, you will be able to decipher who is genuine and who is not.”
Wells suggests looking at brands’ sustainability sections on their websites for specific information on sourcing, manufacturing and shipping information. Similar facts can be found on content labels—though Wells advises against taking hangtag messaging to heart.
“A hangtag may read ‘made of natural materials,’ but if you peek at the contents on the label, a company might have snuck in 1 percent elastane to give you that stretch you need,” she said. “Always read the fine print and if there is none, ask the brand directly.”
A pricey jean is not an indication of sustainability, as even luxury brands can be culprits of environmentally and socially harmful business practices—for instance, both Burberry and Louis Vuitton have destroyed unsold product in the recent past. However, a low price can be a sign that something is up, as fibers like organic cotton and hemp are available at a premium and fair labor is often reflected in the price tag.
“One can be sure that no jeans can be respectful of the environment or garment workers under a certain price,” Oudard said.
In the age of transparency, there’s no excuse for vague or grandiose claims. Tracing technologies like PaperTale and FibreTrace have made it possible to track a material down to the farm on which the cotton was grown. For this reason, Oudard advises caution toward claims that seem over the top.
“A combination of the words ‘jeans’ and ‘saving’ is a total red flag for me,” she said. “We can all agree on the fact that we won’t save the planet by making more jeans, or clothes in general, and any brand that claims to do so is simply greenwashing its actions.”
Oudard says to look for science-based data and third-party audits on the brand’s website that can support those statements. It’s also important to note the brand’s pace of production.
“When a brand is releasing new products every day or even every week, it is called overproduction,” she said. “There’s nothing sustainable about that, no matter what they may claim.”