As I open the ASOS app on my phone, the first thing that catches my eye as I scroll down the homepage is the brand’s relatively-new Circular collection. It’s worth noting, it’s not the items in the collection but the tagline that captures my attention. “Cut the scrap!” My first thought is: here’s yet another fashion brand trying to save the planet.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for protecting the planet. I don’t deny climate change and the impact it is having. I’ve watched the David Attenborough documentaries, I’ve read David Wallace-Well’s The Uninhabitable Earth, I’ve cheered for Greta Thunberg and I’ve ditched the single-use plastic straws. Like others, I’ve done the bare minimum. But that is nowhere near enough. I leave the hallway light on throughout the evening, and I habitually forget to unplug my phone charger, amongst other micro things that inevitably add up and contribute to our extinction.
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In recent years, public interest in sustainability has grown immensely. Whilst this increasing environmental consciousness is amazing, it comes with one rather unfortunate side effect: greenwashing.
If you’ve never heard of greenwashing and you’re wondering what it is, here's the answer you are looking for. Greenwashing is the term used to describe a company which spends more time and money marketing themselves as environmentally friendly than on minimising their environmental impact. The term was originally coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in an essay published in 1986. Amongst its other repercussions, greenwashing violates trust, which can have a bleak psychological impact on customers.
I strongly question fashion brands and their new marketing campaigns that teeter towards greenwashing, especially after learning how to be greenwashing vigilant. Alas, greenwashing can be tough to spot and even harder to stop. This is due to the lack of a definition of what represents greenwashing. For someone who is trying to limit their shopping addiction and contact with fast fashion, it can feel overwhelming as to what the right way to shop ethically is. With a large amount of high-street fashion brands adopting a ‘woke’ persona and trying to cater to the environmentally-conscious consumer, distinguishing between the truth and lies can be difficult.
This brings me back to ASOS Design’s Circular collection. How are we helping the Earth if half of our online basket consists of sustainable gear and the other sits on the opposite side of the spectrum? Sure, the collection is a step in the right direction. However, the collection represents a measly 0.035% of the brand’s 85,000 mighty product offering. And while we’re on the topic of circularity, it wouldn’t be fair not to mention that there is no public evidence that shows ASOS’ suppliers are paying a living wage. This ultimately means that the brand cannot prove that the workers making their clothes earn enough to live on (circularity cannot be considered sustainable without decent living wages).
Many of the words on packaging designed to grab our attention (natural, green, eco-friendly, clean, zero-waste, recycled, vegan) have ultimately been overused so much that they have lost all meaning. According to a recent report by WWD, there has been a 49% rise in products described as ‘eco’ and a 25% rise in the word ‘conscious’.
I’m not pushing ASOS specifically under the bus here for perhaps greenwashing. There’s plenty of other popular fashion brands that have jumped on the sustainable bandwagon too; think Pretty Little Thing, H&M and Missguided. There are many greenwashing examples in fashion including the H&M Conscious Collection, Zara Join Life, Primark Cares, Topshop Considered, Recycled by Pretty Little Thing, Monki Lazy Loop and Mango Committed. Whilst ASOS delves into a little more detail compared to the brands mentioned above, there is little substance and a lot of vague declarations that cannot easily be confirmed.
It is unclear to consumers what exactly “the kind of fashion that’s good for your wardrobe and better for the environment” really entails. As consumers, we deserve clarity and most importantly, transparency. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with using these words, companies need to be transparent and clearly define how they put them in practice. A sustainable business should no longer be perceived as just a buzzword.
The beauty industry follows a similar approach when trying to gain environmentally minded consumers. At least with most beauty products, we can access an ingredients list and determine just how organic and eco-friendly they claim to be. Whereas with fast fashion companies, the question remains – where did this jumper/pair of jeans/t-shirt come from and where will it go after leaving my wardrobe?
So, once you’ve noticed a form of greenwashing taking place, how do you call it out? Well, there’s no use cancelling a brand on social media as we all know that usually achieves very little. Instead, reach out to the company behind it all and provide them with a fair chance to respond. If you’re ignored, then it’s time to log into your Twitter account to keep the company accountable. If you’re able to communicate with brands directly and you feel secure to do so, use that liberty to question them on their practices, demanding that they work better.
Hopefully, policy changes concerning company transparency and advancements in technology will eventually make it so consumers are not burdened with policing fashion brands initially. Greenwashing is not entirely detrimental, as it could be the stimulant for enduring and ethical change. However, transparency is a vital element to begin with.
All I am seeking is a smidge of clarity; is that too much to ask for? But for now, I’ll close the ASOS app and start drafting an email to their headquarters.
Written by Ravinder Kaur