Exclusive Research Package Sustainability Communications

Rising Sustainability Message Regulations in the Apparel Industry

Unfolding alongside the constitutive demands for transparency, policymakers have also begun to more stringently examine ways to mitigate firms' exaggerated or unsubstantiated sustainability claims (aka greenwashing) in order to facilitate greater transparency and environmental accountability.

By Matthew Porter

The fashion industry is a major environmental pollutant. Staking itself on continual change, it is deeply embedded in the logics of economic growth that often comes at the price of environmental harm. Whether it be Burberrys burning overstock in efforts to maintain a mystique of exclusivity, that approximately 20% of water pollution being credited to chemical finishing and dyeing of textiles, the industry’s constitution of 4% of the global total of green-house emissions, among its other questionable entanglements with labor conditions and wages, fashion is marked as a prime target for much needed reform. 

Of course there are multiple aspects that need to be changed in order to shape fashion as a more environmentally friendly industry. One factor  is the actual task of reducing waste, minimizing pollution, and establishing responsible supply chains. Another is the matter of consumer habits that have unfortunately cosigned these harmful practices via their desires to  access trendy clothing quickly and cheaply. Then, there is the question of how brands are currently signaling their eco-friendliness to their consumers and stakeholders. With the increasing trend of climate consciousness along with other social initiatives, consumers and investors alike are leveraging their capital as a means to ensure companies are living up to their claims. While such a reality does little to divorce fashion from its frames of capitalistic growth, it begins to reshape the perception that capital and sustainability are necessarily antagonistic. 

Unfolding alongside the constitutive demands for transparency, policymakers have also begun to more stringently examine ways to mitigate firms’ exaggerated or unsubstantiated sustainability claims (aka greenwashing) in order to facilitate greater transparency and environmental accountability.

Whether it be through recycling initiatives or sourcing renewable fibers, fashion brands have taken it upon themselves to relay how they are doing their fair share for the planet to their customers. But these claims and frames are disparate with no two companies quite doing sustainability in the same way. Not only can this potentially be confusing to consumers, unless thorough research is done consumers can detrimentally rely on the brands’ claims of eco-friendliness. Without sufficient oversight, how can consumers be sure that their favorite brands are in fact living up to their green messages? As a response, administrations across the globe have started formulating policies to define sustainability more discriptly and to hold fashion firms accountable for their sustainable assertions. Of course efforts to reform the fashion industry in this way are still works in progress and by no means perfect.
Concerns about exaggerated sustainability claims have bubbled up in Europe resulting in penalties in some cases reaching up to €900,000. Similar action has been taken in other areas of brand claims in the US and has now begun to target the sustainability sphere. Soon, lofty fines might be the norm in deterring fashion brands from greenwashing. Ironically, as the Global Fashion Agenda in collaboration with McKinsey reports,  many actions towards reducing carbon emission, for example, are actually more cost effective for firms over time despite the cost of initial investment. Given enough time, it could be said that the cost of greenwashing under these emergent policies may cost more than actually making the changes.

In the realm of eco-branding on the US front, the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) oversight is mainly concerned with combatting deceptive advertising. This foregrounds that environmentalism is in part the actual practices that firms engage in but it is also how they talk about said practices. In 1992 (most recently revised in 2012), the FTC introduced Green Guides, an outline of recommendations for businesses to curtail unsubstantiated environmental claims and implies relevance to other forms of CSR marketing as well. While the FTC guides are a litmus for transparency and accurate articulation of product benefits, sourcing, and business practices as it pertains to the environment, these guidelines are not without exploitable loopholes. For one, certain terms remain loosely or completely undefined by the guides, most notably “organic”, “natural”, and— everyone’s favorite—”sustainable”. Secondly, these guides are technically supplemental to the application of deceptive marketing laws under the FTC Act rather than being strictly enforceable metrics in their own rite. 

Thus far, only 39 cases have been levied against corporations for environmental claims that were deemed dubious, most of which sought injunctive sanctions as opposed to financial penalties. When it comes to the fashion and textile industry, the FTC has taken action against major players such as Nordstrom, Macy’s, Amazon, and Sears under the misrepresentation of rayon products as 100% bamboo or in other forms of failing to clarify in what proportion the product was rayon. 

Of course, these are very specific causes of action that could be clearly undertaken pursuant to the Textile Fiber Product Identification Act. Yet, other practices are not as clear-cut. Until there is a consistent lexicon for environmentalism that is intelligible amongst both consumers and businesses—whether formally or otherwise— it is vital to examine the role of language in corporate commitments to sustainability.

About Matthew Porter, Sustainability Research Intern

Matt Porter, is an educator, design researcher, and sociocultural anthropologist with an emphasis on fashion theory, epistemologies of dominance, and the US military. His approach maps critical theory onto strategies of design and material production. Currently, his works-in-progress include inquiry into the socio-legal implications of political fashion and prototyping models aimed at reconstituting US garment manufacturing. At Unbuilt Labs, Matt will be investigating consumer sentiment and receptivity to sustainable business schemas and how fashion brands can meet consumer demands with ethical yet effective business models.

  • Parsons School of Design, MA in Fashion Studies, 2019
  • University of North Texas, BA in Fashion Design, 2016