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When greenwashing meets fast fashion, a perfect disaster

Dernière mise à jour : 25 avr.

Eleven years ago today, a fatal accident occurred in Dhaka, Bangladesh. On 24th April 2013, the so-called Rana Plaza, a garment factory, collapsed and 1134 workers died. Many more got injured. This terrible disaster put the fast fashion industry and its production methods into the spotlight for the first time.


greenwashing and fast fashion pollution
Source : Freepik/IA

After the collapse of the 8-story building, horrific scenes of the crumbled structure, dead bodies and amputated limbs went around the world leaving consumers in the global North in shock. Was this the place where people’s favourite brands are produced? Yes, this was a reality, and it still is. Fast fashion comes at a price, both from an environmental and social point of view.

Back in 2013, the term sustainability was only beginning its ascension and most customers of Zara, Mango, Primark, C&A, Benetton, who are all known to be brands that produced their garments at Rana Plaza at very low cost, didn’t bother much about the issues in manufacturing conditions. Gladly, - or should we rather say sadly - the Rana Plaza accident marked a turning point, at least to some extent. All eyes were suddenly on the garment workers in Bangladesh, but also China and other countries in the global South, who earn barely enough to survive while consumers in the global North go on shopping sprees, or since the coming to power of TikTok, shopping hauls, at the lowest possible prices. Long before fair fashion, sustainability, circular economy or even cradle to cradle became a thing, social justice suddenly mattered in the eyes of a consumer. There was consensus that working conditions for the garment workers should improve. It wasn't until later that the environmental impact of one of the most polluting industries on the planet became a hot topic too.


What is fast fashion and why is it so problematic?


“Fast fashion can be defined as cheap, trendy clothing that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments at breakneck speed to meet consumer demand. The idea is to get the newest styles on the market as fast as possible, so shoppers can snap them up while they are still at the height of their popularity and then, sadly, discard them after a few wears. It plays into the idea that outfit repeating is a fashion faux pas and that if you want to stay relevant, you have to sport the latest looks as they happen. It forms a key part of the toxic system of overproduction and consumption that has made fashion one of the world’s largest polluters” ( 

Some 50 years ago, throughout a given year, 2 to 4 seasonal collections were launched. In the early 2000s, brands such as H&M or Zara started a revolutionary trend of offering new collections every few months! This over-consumption habit became normalized as fast fashion. Situations were exasperated in the 2020s, when superfast fashion brands like SHEIN specialised in online selling offering daily new collections.

Some 50 years ago, throughout a given year 2 to 4 seasonal collections were launched. In the early 2000s brands such as H&M or Zara started a revolutionary trend of offering new collections every few months! 

“Believe it or not, SHEIN adds new clothes to its website every day! Yes, you read that right – every single day! This means that fashion lovers can find something new and exciting every time they visit SHEIN's site or app”. The goal here is to create an addiction to buying new at an unprecedented frequency. Consumers are constantly on the hunt for the newest trends and thus spend copious amounts of money in order to stay hip. In response to a majority with limited funds to maintain this habit, clothes had to be cheap. The production cheap clothes at such a speed therefore comes at a cost, namely for the garment workers and the environment.

Working conditions in this industry are far from sain. With over 60% being women, most don’t earn a living wage - not to be confused with the minimum wage, which is sometimes paid but is not sufficient for a decent life. Salaries are often overdue or not even paid at all while workers are expected to work extremely long hours without health insurance or paid leave. Some of the worst cases refer to child labour and or modern slavery. For example, such situations in Uyghur in China. What's more, some of these industries are exposed to toxic fumes or liquids with detrimental effect on respiratory systems.

At the same time, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of the global greenhouse gas emissions, more than shipping and aviation (!) COMBINED. Production and manufacturing systems are complex and energy intensive since textiles are brought in from all over the world. Approximately 2/3 of all clothes produced contain polyester and other plastic derivates, aka petroleum. Wherever natural fibres are used, excessive water consumption and the use of pesticides (especially in conventional cotton production) cause major issues in natural resource management. In order to produce one pair of jeans, an unbelievable amount of 7500 litres of water is necessary. Further, increased water pollution occurs due to the use of chemical substances linked to bleaching, dyeing and other chemical processes common in the garment sector.

The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of the global greenhouse gas emissions, more than shipping and aviation (!) COMBINED.

Finally, the increasing problem surrounding the waste of such products after the clothes no longer serve their consumers. In the US alone, 10.5 tonnes of garments are thrown away every year, ending up in giant fashion dumpsters especially in the global South with the best-known example being the Atacama Desert. Clothing donations of European and American brands and resale at knocked-down prices is also affecting local markets that cannot compete with such prices in the long run.

Some progres: minimalism, tech-solutions, taking responsibility or a magic trick?


There has been some movement in the right direction. Awareness of both the social and environmental impacts of the fashion industry has reached parts of the consuming clientele. A myriad of books, movies, documentaries, talks about the dark sides of the fashion industry have surfaced in the past 10 to 15 years and many fashionistas are becoming more aware of the impacts of their purchases. On the production side, a lot has evolved too. Certification labels like GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) have gained credibility. Fair and slow fashion brands have emerged and labour conditions for garment workers have significantly improved. However, we still see a problem in the way capitalism encourages concepts like fast fashion. In her book All about love, author Bell Hooks explains the hunger for consumption and its cultural incorporation as a substitute for the lack of love and spirituality in our societies. She writes: “we are endlessly bombarded by messages telling us that our every need can be satisfied by material increase”.

On 24th April 2013, the so-called Rana Plaza, a garment factory, collapsed and 1134 workers died. (Source: Flickr/Rijans)

The idea of minimalism has surfaced by a few disciplined individuals responding to the growing problems surrounding the industry. Owning less, considering needs before wants and getting creative with what you have at hand. Through social media such as Instagram, a phenomenon called capsule wardrobes has become popular. The idea being to own a limited number of high-quality pieces, preferably in muted colours, that are extremely versatile and can be combined in an endless number of different outfits.


Textiles and fabrics have also progressed in the right direction. New materials have been developed, dyeing processes have been optimised and plastic materials are being used for items such as backpacks. Through enhace efficiencies in technologies, emissions are cut and fewer resources consumed. Streamlining the manufacturing process and recycling policies have helped to lower the fashion industry’s footprint.


Consumers can also share the burden by making responsible purchases. As long as there is capitalism, there will always be consumption. Smart marketing and advertising targets our emotional desires and encourages us to keep buying new. By distancing ourselves and recognizing marketing tactics we can strive to escape the consumerist trap. Instead, consider the essential pillars of a circular economy in which the aspects of reusing, sharing, leasing or repairing are prioritized. While, not as strict as minimalism, this idea supports the idea of collective forms of ownership, the value of items for longer periods of time and repurposing and recycling before replacing.

As long as there is capitalism, there will always be consumption.

Of course, there are certain obstacles when changing our habits and it's not easy. Minimalism requires extreme resistance vis-à-vis of the omnipresent stimulation to buy. The enhancement of production methods depends on a high level of financial investement and research. Finally, assuming responsible consumption implies personal dedication (reusing), the openness towards new lifestyles (sharing), the knowledge of a small group of people who are ready to put their skills at disposal for the greater good (repairing) and the letting go of old habits (ownership).

Astonishingly however, we witness more and more popular brands that are making this attractive and attainable. Many more fast fashion brands now have a second-hand platform in their app or on their website. In some countires, the concept of clothing rentals is becoming more popular. Sports or outdoor clothing brands boast about recycled materials in their products. T-shirts made of organic cotton can be found in any department store. We begin to change our understanding of the industry and develop new habits in order to satisfy our desire to consume.

So, can I simply keep on going with my shopping sprees at my favourite fast fashion store, since now they are using organic cotton, recycled polyester? Can I drop off my old clothes (that are naturally being sold on their second-hand platform) in return for a shopping voucher without a bad conscience? Since the ticket even says that my clothes are made in Europe, can I assume the labour conditions of the garment workers are good? Right?

Sadly, this is yet another magic trick of the industry.

And along came the idea of greenwashing


What is greenwashing? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines greenwashing as “the act or practice of making a product, policy, activity, etc. appear to be more environmentally friendly or less environmentally damaging than it really is”. Greenwashing has become extremely common among fashion businesses because sustainability is trendy and fashion thrives on trends. Major brands benefit by developing an identity of eco-consciousness, eco-responsible and sustainability. They launch “eco-friendly” collections, use recycled fibres as their flagship and hire self-proclaimed “eco”-influencers to give it more credibility. This all sounds very promising. But how many of the claims are true?

As it turns out, not much.

According to a recent Greenpeace report called “Greenwash danger zone”, 39% of the sustainability claims in the textile sector could be “false or deceptive”. In response, a new EU-Green-Claims-Directive was adopted at the beginning of the year. Its aim is to protect consumers from misleading environmental claims and strives to end some of this mis-information that is confusing for consumers. With the creation of this legal framework, consumers can hopefully orient themselves among the various labels and companies will be forced to hold evidence for their claims. This is not only true for the fashion industry but any sectors where greenwashing is becoming ever more prominent.

According to Greenpeace, only 3% of all clothes are truly made from recycled fibres, with a vast share being reused plastic bottles.

Here are some facts to dimystify greenwashing claims. Regarding textiles, the myth surrounding recycled polyesters; according to Greenpeace, only 3% of all clothes are truly made from recycled fibres, with a vast share being reused plastic bottles. Only a mere 1% are truly made of old clothes. This is not surprising since recycling is still a very complex and rather expensive process. What's more, the majority of clothing is manufactured as a mixed-fibre produce. Some pieces are 100% cotton or 100% polyester but far more common is the composition with different materials (e.g. 10% wool, 50% cotton, 35% viscose and 5% elastane). Such mixed materials make recycling almost impossible, especially when naturals fibres are compounded with petroleum-based materials such as polyester and other derivates. One must be very careful with recycled polyester claims in so-called conscious collections. It is important to remember that by making a piece of clothing that includes recycled polyester as long as there are other fibres in the mix because it means that the new piece would never be recyclable again.


Many companies also love to use vague terms such as “responsibly manufactured” or “made in Europe” which don’t tell the consumer anything concrete or practical about the production process. Currently, manufacturers are only required to have one single part of the supply chain taking place in Europe to justify “made in Europe” on the tag of the garment. A dress made from cotton sourced Burkina Faso, dyed in Morocco, tailored in Turkey with buttons sewn on in Portugal can be labeled “made in Europe”.

However, it is important to keep in mind an item made in Bangladesh or China does not automatically mean that the labour conditions are terrible. Improvements in the past years in the global South are promising and despite the higher emissions linked to transportation across continents, producing in these specialised countries can also have a positive impact on local communities. In fact, some fair fashion brands uphold great collaborations with manufacturing partners in India and other textile-prone regions.


Source : Freepik/IA

How do I know when its authentic?

The easiest way to detect greenwashing is to know who are the most polluting brands that are making sustainability claims. A sudden 'green coating' from a fast fashion brand is suspicious. Why is that? Imagine they actually make efforts to use more recycled fibres and some organic cotton, but the quantity of clothing produced is not decreased.

Detrimental practices such as fibres made of plastic, conventional cotton production using pesticides, leather and wool that are likely to cause animal harm and production the global South with poor working conditions are a disaster for the environment and a human rights violation. They should end immediately. But what the real issue? It’s the quantity! It’s the craziness of launching new collections weekly, it’s the sheer amount of resources that are used up on a daily basis to produce tons and tons of new pieces every single second of every day. This increased speed in production and consumption was purposefully done by the fast fashion industry. So, even if they did make some efforts in some areas, the simple fact that they don’t question the impacts of their business model is the number one reason why it will always be classified as greenwashing.


A personal dilemma I sometimes face, being a fashion lover and a former owner of a second-hand shop, is the fact that of course I love trends but at the same time condemn their ephemerality. I am not immune to trends because like everybody I grew up in a consumerist world and have learned that to dress is a way to express my personality, my belonging to a group and a way to be creative. Having a background in sociology and an enormous interest in sustainability with its many opportunities to adapt into reducing my ecological footprint, I find myself wondering which are the key elements to be able to unify my love for fashion and my need to live responsibly.

As long as we don’t question the system we live in, the void that we feel that incites us to purchase material(istic) things, the need to consume will remain.

Second-hand is still one of the most satisfying options for me. It allows me to elongate the life span of a piece of clothing and to buy something without using new resources. However, and now it becomes trickier, should I choose second-hand fast fashion over fair fashion? Buying a fast-fashion piece second-hand, I definitely delay its ending up in a landfill. However, buying from someone who sells fast fashion on a second-hand platform allows this person to earn money from my purchase and will incite them to buy fast fashion again. Fair fashion on the other hand often fulfils my criteria in terms of production conditions and more natural fibres that have an overall lower impact on the environment. Nevertheless, they still produce something new when there are enough existing clothes on the planet for the next decade.

As long as we don’t question the system we live in, the void that we feel that incites us to purchase material(istic) things, the need to consume will remain. In a capitalist world, it is easy to seduce consumers with greenwashing, because all they want is to buy stuff with a good conscience. They are happy to believe all the stories about conscious collections and trees planted and happy women sewing their latest pair of pants, because consumerism is what keeps our economies growing. Or as Bell Hooks writes: “We may not have enough love but we can always shop”.


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