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‘Greenwashing Abounds’ and Fast Fashion’s the Biggest Culprit

H&M, Boohoo, Asos and George at Asda might be the first brands under fire for their green claims but they likely won’t be the last.

Greenwashing abounds” in the fashion sector, according to a recent report from StyleSage, which pointed to research showing that many brands regularly misrepresent their environmental impact.

The market intelligence platform found significant growth in products labeled with sustainability claims when it analyzed information from more than 300,000 items from 50 retailers in the U.S., the U.K. and Germany from January 2020-June 2022, looking at trends in pricing, assortment mix, language and descriptions.

Each country saw increases of at least 250 percent since the beginning of 2020, with terms such as “recycled,” “organic,” and “sustainable” used most often to describe apparel. “Vegan,” “sustainable,” and “recycled” were used most often to describe footwear.

StyleSage said there’s little real science backing up these claims. It found a 298-percent increase in imprecise claims, compared to a much smaller, 69-percent increase in the use of certifications and audits from organizations like Oeko-Tex, Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), USDA Organic, B Corp , Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Fair Trade International, or the Forest Stewardship Council.

“When looking at generic sustainable keywords used in product descriptions versus those that use sustainable certifications, we saw that the number of items using the generic terms currently outnumbers certified sustainable apparel by more than six times,” it wrote. The U.S. leads in the adoption of sustainable certifications, but vaguely labeled items still outweigh that progress.

According to StyleSage’s analysis, low-priced retailers and fast-fashion brands more frequently engage in the vagaries of greenwashing versus pricier brands. Zara appeared to characterize 99 percent of its merchandise as sustainable, using terms like “environmental,” “responsible,” “upcycled,” “conscious,” and “recycled.” Fellow Spanish brand Mango used such terms to characterize 57 percent of its assortment. “With large percentages of ‘sustainable’ items labeled in their mix, it doesn’t add up with the consumption business model,” StyleSage said. Meanwhile, online marketplaces Shopbop and Net-a-Porter described just 2 percent and 12 percent of products using such keywords, respectively.

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Many retailers simply aren’t specific enough about product makeup. Approximately 10 percent of analyzed retailers used “recycled materials” or “recycled fibers” to describe product inputs—”a somewhat vague and difficult-to-verify reference,” StyleSage said.

StyleSage research showed a high adoption of recycled polyester, however. In Germany and the U.K., more than 60 percent of retailers described some products as being made from the material, compared to 53 percent in the U.S. Between 12 percent and 14 percent of all analyzed retailers are also using recycled cotton in their assortments, according to product descriptions.

Sellouts on products labeled as sustainable are similar to the rates seen on regular items, despite the higher prices. StyleSage said this highlights an opportunity for companies producing sustainable fashion, which hasn’t reached its market potential.

For example, footwear labeled with eco claims make up just 6 percent of the market—but sustainable shoes sold out at a rate of 27 percent, versus 20 percent for non-eco offerings. The rate was even closer for sustainable and non-sustainable denim offerings, at 19 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, sustainable denim makes up just 24 percent of product on sale in the U.S., the U.K. and Germany. Activewear sold out at a rate of 21 percent regardless of its sustainability labeling, with only 27 percent of products designated as eco-friendly.