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What is ‘greenwashing’?

Caitlin Hall


A number of UK fashion companies have recently come under fire for ‘greenwashing’. ASOS, Boohoo, and George at Asda, are being investigated by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) about the sustainability claims of their products.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines greenwashing as ‘an attempt to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is’.

These fashion brands appear to be intentionally misleading consumers about how sustainable and ethical their materials and practices are. Many claim to use recycled materials but do nothing to verify this information; they may only use as little as 20% recycled fabric in their garments.

The CMA found that the companies mentioned were using vague language to manipulate consumers into thinking they were making better choices for the planet, such as ASOS’s ‘Responsible Edit’, Boohoo’s ‘Ready for the Future’ product line, and Asda’s ‘George for Good’ range.

Old clothes being recycled

Old clothes being recycled

Knowing the truth about a company’s sustainability practices allows consumers to make meaningful, considered and informed decisions. Whether this involves veganism, reducing plastic waste, minimising their carbon footprint, etc., people like to make decisions that will impact the planet more positively. Committing to a sustainable wardrobe, by either buying second-hand clothing or shopping from ‘green’ companies, is another move that will help the planet. Some consumers have denounced ‘fast fashion’ altogether—a term defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends’.

It can’t be easy to make an informed consumer choice when the marketing campaigns for these fashion brands are riddled with falsities. TikToker Andrea Cheong is a prominent figure in the conversation around fashion sustainability. She visits high street shops and examines clothing from numerous different brands, assessing how the garment holds up on the shop floor, inspecting the quality of the materials, and determining how timeless the design is. A marker of a good product, in her opinion, is whether it’s worth the consumer’s money. If a garment is made with recycled materials but has a trendy pattern that will go out of fashion in a few years, and, as a result, will likely end up untouched in a charity shop (or worse, in landfill), she believes it is actually less sustainable than a polyester black dress that will never go out of fashion and which can be styled in multiple ways.

Tik Toc logo

Tik Toc logo

In recent years, sustainability has shifted from recycled materials to timeless, classic fashion choices. The popularity of TikTok has given rise to ‘microtrends’, i.e. a certain look or style that’s popular for only a short period of time…generally adopted by younger people who are often animated by new fads and moved by the Fear Of Missing Out. These fast-fashion-driven fads also include buying a whole new outfit for one event that’s then pushed to the back of their wardrobe, never to be seen again.

However, whilst it isn’t fair that consumers are being intentionally misled by these fashion brands, if people really do want to ‘make the right choices’, they need to think critically about their purchases, rather than just blindly taking these brands’ words as gospel. Boohoo sales can often see clothing prices slashed to just a few pounds – of course factory workers aren’t earning a living wage when clothes are being manufactured and sold so cheaply. SHEIN and Primark are some of the biggest names in fast fashion and they get the worst rap for their contribution to environmental pollution; however, their consumers are under no illusion that the clothes from these brands are not made sustainably. Places like ASOS and H&M sell clothing at similar prices and use similar sustainability practices; however, they ‘re not targeted in the same way.

Unless they have a very large budget for their wardrobe, the average consumer can’t afford to buy truly sustainable pieces, which often retail for more than one hundred pounds per item. Perhaps the only way the average consumer can be completely sustainable is by shopping second-hand and steering away from microtrends—opting instead for timeless designs that will reduce the amount of clothing sent to landfill and ensuring that the clothes they buy are worn again and again.

High street brands want us to believe that they’re more eco-friendly than their materials prove them to be. Consumers are forced to fight against their marketing manipulation and understand what actually makes a garment sustainable before making an educated decision. Though the decision around any clothing purchase ultimately lies with the consumer, it’s unfair to have them believe they’ve made a good choice if the opposite is true. The best thing these clothing brands can do for the environment is to come clean about their practices.

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