Original publication by Michael Dulaney for abc.net.au on 3 November 2022
Laura McAndrews has seen and heard some things that the fashion industry wouldn’t want the public to know.
For many years, it was her job to find factories to produce millions of items of clothing for big American brands like The Gap and Anthropologie.
She started to worry about the environmental impact of clothing just as these multinational companies began accelerating into fast fashion.
When she was asked about organic cotton in 2005, she found out just how easily sustainability could be dropped as a priority.
“They were like, ‘Laura, look into how we get organic,'” she told ABC podcast, Threads.
“I give them my little presentation … and they were like, ‘You know what? We just did some market research. No-one’s asking for it. No-one cares about it unless you can get us organic for the same price as everything else. Let’s just not do it.'”
This period of her career changed her perspective on the industry.
Dr McAndrews, now an assistant professor at the University of Georgia, sees a lot of the sustainability and environmental claims about clothing as little more than public relations spin to improve the image of brands.
It’s a practice known as “greenwashing”, where companies misrepresent the extent to which a product is environmentally friendly, sustainable or ethical.
“Greenwashing is a marketing strategy that gives you a reason to buy,” Dr McAndrews said.
“Like putting a green tag on it, giving you a pretty little story – and now you feel good about your overconsumption. There’s nothing good about it.”
Is greenwashing really that bad?
As consumers become aware of the environmental cost of fast fashion, brands are finding new ways to market their clothing as sustainable.
They might spruik the fast-growing nature of bamboo or lower carbon footprint of organic cotton, or tout the benefits of recycled polyester (more on that later).
But the end results aren’t always what they’re made out to be.
Earlier this year, high street retailer H&M was scrutinised for its use of bogus environmental scorecards for its clothing.
An investigation by Quartz found half of the company’s claims were misleading and, in some cases, outright deceptive. In response, H&M temporarily removed the claims from its website.
Greenwashing is rampant across the industry, at least according to analysis by the Dutch sustainability non-profit, Changing Markets.
They recently analysed thousands of clothing items and found that nearly two-thirds of sustainability labels were unsubstantiated and misleading to consumers.
This was much higher for the worst brands; 96 per cent of claims made by H&M were found to be false.
Dr McAndrews said the claims were often little more than a marketing ploy or a response to bad publicity about a brand’s environmental record.
“Greenwashing in general is completely reactionary,” she said. “We need to see things how they really are.”
It’s an issue that is increasingly on the radar of watchdogs in Australia.
In October, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission launched a crackdown on companies’ false environmental and sustainability claims.
The internet sweep targets greenwashing in over 200 company websites, including some selling clothing and footwear.
So what’s wrong with turning plastic bottles into T-shirts?
Like Laura McAndrews, Adrian Jones spent years in the fashion industry.
He started his career as a merchandiser for big British chains like Marks and Spencer and NEXT. By 2014, he was chief executive at APG & Co, the Australian company that owns Sportscraft, SABA and JAG.
And like Dr McAndrews, he also became disenchanted with the excesses of fast fashion. He now works for a start-up that aims to divert fashion waste from landfill.
He said one of the worst new trends — one that deserved the tag of greenwashing — was recycled polyester, also known as rPET.
This fibre is made by melting down existing plastic and re-spinning it into new polyester fibre.
Nike and Zara’s parent group, Inditex, relies on down-cycling single-use plastic bottles to meet its demand for polyester.
Patagonia used recycled polyester for 88 per cent of its polyester clothing in the spring 2022 season, while H&M markets rPET as part of its “Conscious” collection.
It’s meant to lessen the reliance on virgin polyester, and the petroleum and energy that comes with making new fibres. One Swiss study found that emissions were reduced by nearly a third compared to virgin polyester.
But critics like Jones say recycled polyester may convince people that their purchases don’t have an impact on the environment — a claim that’s far from true.
He said turning old plastic bottles into T-shirts wasn’t just diverting a problem, but creating one.
Once turned into clothing, most plastic can’t be recycled further and will instead be thrown away.
Clothes are already hard to recycle. Globally, only 12 per cent of material used in clothing ends up being recycled, and this is especially true for polyester, which is often mixed with other materials like cotton, preventing the fibres from being separated and made into other garments.
Jones said making clothing from plastic bottles took them out of a system where they would otherwise have been recycled into new bottles over and over again, accelerating the path of plastic to landfill.
“All that recycled polyester has come from bottles. Not one scrap of it has come from polyester garments,” he said.
There’s also the problem of plastic microfibres, which continue to be shed from clothing, whether the polyester used is recycled or not.
When clothing is made of plastic, it lasts in the environment for a long time.
“If you put pure cotton in the soil, it’ll break down fairly quickly because it’s an organic product,” Jones said.
“Polyester will take 200 years, maybe 1,000 years [to break down], and during that stage it will release noxious chemicals.”
Can consumers buy their way out of the problem?
All fibres used to make clothing come with some impact. Some are better than others, and often one advantage comes with a new environmental cost.
Polyester, for example, uses far less water to produce than cotton, which is water-intensive at all stages of production, from growing to spinning and dyeing.
Dr McAndrews said the most sustainable approach was to wear clothing many times irrespective of the fibre, and to buy fewer garments.
The big question eating away at campaigners like Urška Trunk from Changing Markets is how companies can make very loose environmental claims and get away with it.
Trunk said in the EU, regulators were cracking down on some practices and holding fast fashion companies responsible.
In Norway, the consumer watchdog recently took a close look at the Higg Index, a self-assessment tool developed by the fast fashion industry to monitor the sustainability of their own supply chains.
Its judgement? “The Higg index is based on weak methodology, is misleading to consumers and should therefore be illegal,” Trunk said.
The tool has been suspended – a move that has big implications for brands around the world, she said, “because there will be scrutiny of their green claims and they will be penalised for misleading consumers”.
And in the Netherlands, regulators reprimanded H&M and sports chain Decathlon for using terms like “conscious” and “eco-design” without further explanation to back up their claims.
Although neither company was fined, both promised to do better and donated nearly a million euros combined to various sustainable causes.
Trunk said this was a problem that couldn’t simply be solved by ethical consumption, and that real solutions required regulation.
“We did not create the fast fashion model,” she said. “It was the [fashion] industry.
“We don’t have the capacity or time to look at every item and see whether it’s good or bad when we go to the store. Shopping sustainably should be the default.”