image: Zara

image: Zara

On the heels of H&M launching a new effort to promote recycling as it seeks to cut its environmental impact, boost its ethical credentials and address looming shortages of raw materials, Zara has introduced “Join Life,” a sustainable collection of clothing that is “made with materials, such as organic cotton, recycled wool, and Tencel, which reduce our environmental impact.”

The move by Zara – the Spanish fast fashion giant, whose parent company, Inditex, is the world’s largest fashion retailer – sounds impressive. Its new initiative, which consists of “clothing that respects the environment,” comes as critics increasingly point to the damage being caused by a throwaway culture fuelled by cheap clothing that has seen a sharp rise in the number of garments sold annually around the world.

But wait … before we get ahead of ourselves, we have seen this before, and it is called “greenwashing.”

As you likely know by now, fast fashion is an industry with a dirty, shadowy supply chain. In order to keep costs low, fast fashion suppliers and even the big-name retailers, themselves, operate in ethically questionable ways. As we have seen in a number of recent lawsuits, they fire pregnant employees to avoid paying health insurance costs (hey, Nasty Gal). They discriminate against transgender employees (hey, Forever 21). They target shoppers based on race (that’s you, H&M) and employees based on religion (and you, Zara). That is what is happening on U.S. soil.

In more far-flung locations, fashion brands’ suppliers – some of which are undocumented subcontractors – routinely bypass important quality control and manufacturing health/safety standards because these practices are costly to implement and monitor and that would cut into their bottom line, thereby making them too uncompetitive. Hence, the toxic chemicals in clothes, the frequent employee hospitalizations, and the increasing number of fires and buildings collapsing.

In short, fast fashion is an industry founded upon low wages, poor worker standards, chemicals and waste, and design piracy. In order to avoid the bad press that comes with the aforementioned staples of the industry (which are, in fact, well documented), fast fashion retailers engage in easier, cheaper ways to rehabilitate their images. (Yes, high fashion has had squabbles with labor abuses; there is no denying that. However, the frequency with which there are human rights abuses associated with fast fashion is astronomically higher). 

Enter: Greenwashing, the promotion of green-based environmental initiatives or images without the implementation of business practices that actually minimize environmental impact or any of the other negative effects of fast fashion. This often includes misleading customers about the actual benefits of a product or practice through misleading advertising and/or unsubstantiated claims.

Some recent examples, aside from Zara’s new “sustainable” collection and H&M’s latest recycling stint? Well, you may recall that in 2015, Forever 21 announced plans to install the largest single-rooftop solar-power system in Los Angeles County. In 2012, Zara committed to eliminate all discharge of hazardous chemicals from its supply chain and products by 2020. There are also, of course, the massive PR campaigns to showcase the launch of new “organic” or “natural” lines of clothing, such as Topshop’s “Reclaim to Wear,” waste-reducing initiative. 

And do not forget Everlane, which has gotten very good at touting its “radical transparency” slogan without actually doing anything to back it up. (Hint: Everlane is not actually transparent at all!)

The notion of greenwashing, if used loosely, arguably also applies to other efforts by fast fashion retailers to position themselves more favorably in the eyes of consumers. Take Nasty Gal’s GIRLBOSS Foundation, for instance.

According to Nasty Gal’s website, “Through the Foundation, [the brand’s founder], Sophia Amoruso will award financial grants to women in the worlds of design, fashion, music, and the arts, to help fund them on their way to becoming a GIRLBOSS.” Why not just use that money to more closely monitor your supply chains to at least try to ensure manufacturing that is in line with human rights accords? OR to provide the women who work for your company with healthcare during their pregnancy – as so many have cited that Nasty Gal does not do in their lawsuits for pregnancy discrimination ? 

Don’t get me wrong. Recycling is cool. It is important, but you know what’s not cool? Human rights abuses, design piracy and women being forced to work unsafe work environments. Also not cool: trying to hide important issues that stand in the way of safer, more truly sustainable fashion manufacturing. So, next time you see a massive PR campaign about a fast fashion brand’s wonderful efforts, be sure to think twice. It may not be as wonderful as it seems.

* This article is derived from one that was initially published in August 2015.