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LONDON – Which is the most sustainable fashion brand? Ask 100 different people this question and you are likely to get dozens of different answers, including a lot of ‘don’t knows’.

We are all in the dark here, even those of us write about these issues for a living. How has it come to this? Should we not have some clarity on this by now?

We have now had two decades during which the issue of sustainability has been slowly rising up the corporate agenda. And yet, we are further away than ever from differentiating the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff, the truly sustainable from those who are spinning us all a yarn.

The reason for that? Greenwash. Greenwash is the enemy of progress, the precise opposite of the transparency which apparel brands and industry bodies talk so much about.

This term was coined in the 1980s by Jay Westerveld to describe contemptible corporate environmental claims.

You would think people might have got wise to such issues three decades later, yet the practice of greenwash has also become vastly more sophisticated, making it almost impossible to spot most of the time.

Want some examples? Here are just a few off the top of my head, all of which we have seen in the past few months.

Greenwash is Nike putting statements on its website distancing itself from forced labour issues in Xinjiang while at the same time allegedly lobbying the US Congress to water down legislation which lawmakers are bringing forward to address such issues.

Greenwash is Zalando talking about setting new sustainability standards via its use of the Higg Index of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition when there is absolutely zero proof that they will be doing any such thing. Note: Zalando’s head of sustainability has repeatedly evaded our questions on this issue.

Greenwash is the owner of Boohoo expressing remorse and shock over the way workers in his company’s Leicester supply chains have been treated when supply chain abuses in Leicester have been an open industry secret for years. Does this guy think we are all stupid? That’s the only possible conclusion one can draw.

Greenwash is the Better Cotton Initiative talking about sustainable cotton while stonewalling important questions on its systems and processes; and never once holding its hands up to admit it got things badly wrong when it told the world that cotton from Xinjiang produced by a quasi-military organisation known as XPCC was ‘more sustainable’.

Greenwash is Stella McCartney selling a stake in her business to LVMH – which uses fur and exotic animal skins in its collections – and justifying the move by suggestion she will seek to change LVMH from within. 18 months later, LVMH is still using fur.

Greenwash is by far the biggest single barrier to a more sustainable fashion industry. It’s insidious, it’s pervasive and it’s corrosive. And it has become normalised and accepted – consciously or otherwise – to varying degrees by large swathes of the industry.

When misleading claims become widely accepted on the back of powerful, expensive marketing campaigns, it becomes more and more difficult to call them out. Greenwash wins; indeed, greenwash is winning.

Greenwash means all are tarred with the same brush, regardless of the progress they have made. It allows brands to gain kudos and win business on the back of marketing, not merit.

It holds back independent, progressive brands with genuinely green credentials. After all, if artisan, forward thinking clothing brands are trying to do the right thing – which comes at a financial cost – how can they possibly compete with often larger competitors who simply make it up as they go along? How can they compete with false advertising and misleading marketing claims? How will potential customers know the difference?

Greenwash is exemplified by moves over the past decade by fast fashion retailers to rebrand themselves as sustainable. Let’s be clear here: if you were to invent, from scratch, a clothing business model which was inherently unsustainable, you would invent fast fashion. Marketing folk can throw as much money and resources at this as they like. They can spread fake news about ‘closing the loop’ in fast fashion, they can hire the likes of Ellen MacArthur to give them credibility on recycling issues. It doesn’t change anything: fast fashion is many things, including a very clever business model. But it’s not sustainable and never will be. Pretending otherwise? That’s greenwash.

The rise of greenwash goes hand in hand with rise of PR. There have been several reports in recent years suggesting the number of PRs in the UK will soon outnumber the number of journalists. I suspect this trend is mirrored worldwide.

It is plain to see the power of PR playing out in the apparel and textiles space and, again, this manifests itself in greenwash. The growing influence of PR can be seen in a heightened shift towards imprecise, clichéd management-speak in marketing communications. Often, a press release arrives in my email box and I have to read it three times to actually find the ‘story’.

Read, for example, this and tell us where the story is. Or read this and tell us who is actually doing what. We know something is happening, but we are really not sure what. This imprecise, woolly language, this excess of marketing froth and corporate-speak – that’s greenwash. It’s the language that says a lot without saying anything, words which only serve to confuse an already murky marketplace.

When I started out as a journalist, 25 years ago, you’d usually email a PR back as a matter of course to get some background information on any press release. They’d nearly always give you something extra, a line or two, or some extra information to give some more insight for the reader, usually over the phone (or a pint in those days).

There is barely any of that now. Hard questions are met with vague, pithy answers which don’t really answer the question. Or a set of questions will be met with one long statement which basically says very little and does not answer the questions asked. Brands PR’s now insist on controlling the narrative.

That’s greenwash.

The danger of greenwash, of course, is that it allows companies to give the pretence of ‘progress’ on climate and CSR issues – while such issues continue to go unaddressed.

For years, we have been told brands are reducing CO2 emissions, but these reductions are almost always at owned retail operations – the low hanging fruit if you will. Installing solar energy at a few stores is not going to do much to push the needle on the climate issue and implying otherwise – as brands continue to do – is just more greenwash.

This piece could be seen as an attack on brands but that’s not quite the case. Many people within brands I talk to want to do the right thing and are fiercely passionate about a better, fairer, more progressive industry. They are as fed up as I am with the way workers in their supply chains are being treated, and how their management say one thing in public while behaving very differently behind closed doors.

So what’s the solution? The insidious nature of greenwash, the fact that its tentacles now stretch so far and wide, means there can be no quick fix. Stricter legislation around false or misleading advertising claims – which is enforced – may be the only way forward. Could the industry fund an independent regulator on marketing claims? This might not be as far-fetched as it sounds, given the importance of this issue.

In the meantime, we all have a role to play. It is up to us all to call greenwashing out and question dubious looking claims when and where we see them. There is nothing wrong with asking questions or having doubts.

And always remember the golden rule: if something seems too good to be true, that’s because it almost certainly is.

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