Sustainability is a Journey: Part II: Who is GREENWASHING??? POINT THE FINGER!!
Before I became an underwear intellectual, I used to work in the environment and human rights nonprofit sectors in Washington D.C. When I moved to NYC and started working in fashion, the issues of waste and bad labor practices were apparent to me immediately within the larger brands, and it's one of the main reasons I've since chosen to align my work only with brands who produce domestically within NYC, while anchoring my own brand here as well. It has also been interesting to be a participant and an observer in watching the industry come to terms with its own sustainability issues and searching for the best way forward. Below is a part two of a three-part essay exploring some of these issues within the fashion industry.
Part II: Who is GREENWASHING??? POINT THE FINGER!!
If there is one word we are almost more tired of hearing than sustainability it’s greenwashing. Some entities spend more time analyzing how everyone else is doing sustainable “wrong” instead of seeking out and promoting better ways of doing it “right.”
Of course greenwashing exists, and it is important to be able to identify the outright liars bandwagoning onto a belief system they don’t actually practice in hopes of gaining a buck from the consumer who does. But there is a big difference between a company that’s lying and a company that’s trying…and we need to keep supporting the ones that are on the right path until we are all doing sustainable perfectly. As a consumer it is still good to ask questions, do the research, and make informed decisions in alignment with your beliefs. This is the part of sustainability that requires the customer to do the work: which is to be curious, be critical, and keep demanding better.
I think we are all looking for an easy way out when it comes to sustainability. In addition to being mindful about our own lifestyle choices, we are now expected to police the sustainability claims of other companies as well, a task that can feel exhausting and overwhelming, to say the least! Someone just tell me what to do, what to buy, where to go, what’s ok! We all want it to be black and white—yet it is this type of mentality that often leads to greenwashing, when brands or individuals do the work initially but then just stop as soon as they find a reason to proclaim themselves as sustainable when maybe the technology they were originally embracing has become outdated, or they have grown lazy in their transparency, or they are just plain exhausted with trying to reach perfection.
The answers to the problems of sustainability, like so many good and complicated questions in life, are not black and white. To be truly sustainable is to be continually questioning, testing, and striving. We should always be re-evaluating and re-considering, and never resting on our laurels. Sustainability is not being perfect, but it is TRYING. It is not a competition, and companies who embrace sustainability often forget this, comparing their methods to other companies like they might products or revenue. Yes, sustainability is a journey, but it’s also one that’s better not travelled alone! Historically the fashion industry has been a somewhat brutal environment of Darwinian forces multiplied by the pace and scale of global capitalism: No one shares their resources, brands are in competition with each other for customer attention, and everything is a race against time. While much of this might be unavoidable to a certain extent if you’re trying to stay in the game, when it comes to issues surrounding sustainability we should instead be sharing and listening to each other’s stories and setbacks on the sustainable path and offering support and feedback along the way, because more end-users means better technology and lower cost of entry in the long run. Everyone’s journey towards sustainability is going to look a little bit different, but it doesn’t mean they’re doing it wrong, as long as they’re actually trying, and especially if they are having an open conversation about it.
It’s understandable that we are all getting burned out on hearing about sustainable fashion. As sustainability becomes more of a “trend,” things are getting murkier in the world of social media and traditional marketing in general, and there’s a lot of brands talking about what they’re doing as opposed to actually doing. However, just because this trend is within the context of fashion, doesn’t mean that it should be dismissed or considered stale after a few seasons. Instead, as consumers we should be considering each sustainable claim made, as brands supporting each other in the industry when true progress has been achieved, and as citizens continuing to demand our policymakers create meaningful legislation that makes sure that making fashion doesn’t cost the earth.
(Photo by Michelle Zassenhaus featuring RBNY <3 )