Earth Day & the Perils of Greenwashing in Fashion & Beauty

cotton

April is a happy month for those of us who are nature-lovers and proponents of all that is green and sustainable. We get to revel in our green choices, give ourselves a pat on the back, and then challenge ourselves to learn more and to do even better.

With Earth Week (Apr 16th-22nd) and Earth Day (April 22nd) just around the corner, you’ll be sure to hear plenty from people, businesses and brands sharing their stories and encouraging us to think “green”. Energy use, resource development, the 3 R’s, littering, the effects of pollution, investigating endangered species, global warming… the list of relevant topics from global to local are endless.

Globally, entrepreneurs and advocates Carry Somers, Lucy Siegel and Livia Firth have declared April 24th Fashion Revolution Day. This date coincides with the highly publicized Rana Plaza factory complex collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh one year earlier, which resulted in the loss of 1133 lives and injured 2500. The campaign encourages us to “Be curious. Find out who made your clothes — from who spun the threads, to who sewed them together, to who grew the cotton in the first place. Your clothes already tell a story about who you are. Now they can tell a better one.”

Asking people to participate by wearing their clothes inside-out out, the founders aim to help start an industry-wide transformation towards a more sustainable future. You can participate by sharing your inside out clothes photos on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter by tagging it @Fash_Rev and #InsideOut.

The focus that each of these earth-centric dates brings to important issues is crucial to raising awareness among the general public so that we can make more informed decisions and take decisive action. Earth-themed events in April have been very successful in bringing communities together for activities like neighbourhood trash cleanup, proper waste disposal/collection, energy conservation and waste reduction/diversion. Hopefully from 2014 onward, we can add transparency in the production of garments and other fashion items. In this article, I’ll focus on those products and brands specific to the and fashion industries.

I encourage everyone to be respectfully inquisitive and critical of companies that claim to be green. As Livia Firth said, “A paper bag here, an organic T-shirt there – some brands tick a couple of boxes and ignore the main issue.” If there’s a company or brand you buy from often or would consider yourself a fan of, let them know you’re going to keep them accountable: ask questions, and applaud them for their progress while communicating that you care about their commitment to adopting sustainable practices.

greenwashing

While some greenwashing is glaring, some instances fall into more of a grey area. Here are two examples I encourage you to keep in mind this month as you look more critically at companies participating in Earth Day events:

P&G

This example is of the black-and-white variety. Procter & Gamble is an American multinational with a huge product assortment, which includes cleaning agents and personal care products among many others. Those well-known brands include Gillette, Downy, Johnson & Johnson, Tide, Pantene and CoverGirl cosmetics. In 2012, P&G recorded $83.68 billion in sales.

The ingredients in these products are dodgy at best, and carcinogenic at worst. Chemicals such as SLS (sodium laurelth sulphate), parabens, phthalates, BHA/BHT, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives and triclosan and just a few of the ugly ingredients in these beauty and cleaning products. And that’s just what’s IN the products: the excessive plastic packaging that eventually ends up in landfill is an entirely separate issue- not an insignificant one, either.

However, that hasn’t stopped P&G from participating in Earth Day, positioning itself as an advocate of environmental stewardship. With its new video titled “Everyday Earth Day“, we see a Dr. McDougall (a so-called ‘zero waste to landfill’ leader) hit the streets and talk to people about what they can do in their daily lives to make a difference. The video has an upbeat, playful tone that completely ignores the toxic actions of the company as they shift our focus from P&G onto ourselves.

H&M

Believe it or not- I think H&M’s recent efforts fall into a grey area. As we well know, H&M is a Swedish multinational fashion company, best known for its fast fashion approach to clothing across just about every demographic worldwide. Fast fashion, by its very definition, encourages consumers to buy MORE pieces MORE frequently. By utilizing their massive buying power to get the lowest prices for materials and production (often getting themselves into trouble in the process), they are able to offer a staggering selection of styles on a never-ending rotation at shockingly low prices.  In 2002, H&M released their first CSR (Corporate Sustainability Report), the first of 11 in an ongoing effort to ensure that “products are manufactured in a way that is environmentally and socially sustainable.”

On April 10th, 2014 H&M will be releasing two new collections – Conscious and Conscious Exclusive, made from sustainable materials. In 2013 they introduced a Garment Collecting Initiative, with the aim to reduce their environmental impact by limiting the amount of textiles that end up in landfills. Old clothing can be dropped off at any participating store in exchange for a voucher for a discount on your next purchase. That clothing is either sold into second-hand or vintage markets, converted for re-use such as cleaning cloths, or recycled in to textile fibers.

H&M’s reach is so vast, their buying power so enormous, that these efforts, however lacking and imperfect, are in fact effecting positive changes. Mainstream consumers are introduced to the concept of sustainability, and H&M is now the largest buyer of organic cotton worldwide. But most importantly, H&M is actually helping to support the development of technology to re-create new fabric from old textiles. With so many garments already in circulation, the conversion of old garments into new will be key to preserving resources and diverting textile waste from landfill. This is a new and extremely expensive endeavour, making H&M’s participation an asset to smaller companies and brands without the same resources. Once the technology is there, companies of every size globally will benefit, as will workers and consumers.

clothespins

I encourage all the readers of this blog to speak with their friends and family about sustainability this month, and to participate in the events that speak to you. Beware of greenwashing, and challenge yourself to be an informed consumer, both in fashion and elsewhere.

Comments

  1. I had no idea that H&M is the largest organic cotton buyer! Thx for this informative article!

    • Thanks Karen! According to the most recent info I have, yes- H&M is in fact the single largest buyer of organic cotton worldwide. While I don’t agree with their fast fashion business model, I do think that their use of organic vs non-organic cotton has benefits for workers at all levels of agriculture, processing and manufacture, not to mention the end user.