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  • Chantal Brocca

Greenwashing: Curation Over Ethics

Published in Emirates Woman, The Sustainability Issue, November 2019

It took a while for us to get there, but we finally made it. Now that talk of sustainability is on everyone’s radar, it may seem that the fashion industry is close to dropping its status as the second largest global polluter after oil: household fashion conglomerates such as Kering Group are steadily achieving the sustainability initiatives they announced a couple of years ago, and you’d be hard pressed to find a millennial who didn’t claim to vouch for sustainability.

Yet, as with much of what constitutes our world today, a closer look at the rosy picture painted by brands desperate to don the robes of fashion’s new ideological cash cow betrays an assortment of expertly narrated story telling and vapid slogans, easily regurgitated by publicity obsessed influencers eager to appear holier than thou.

And why not, growing a conscience is certainly trending - and hard.

Harsh realities sometimes seem to us as a bit drastic, but the fact of the matter is that we live in a world where image supersedes substance, and nowhere is this crisis in authenticity more apparent than in the sister creative industries of fashion, art and culture – the guiding beacons with which we individually and collectively construct meaning.

The term sustainable fashion is at risk of becoming yet another contemporary political philosophy hijacked for its appealing ability to mask business-as-usual as purposeful calls to action.

We even have a modern term for it. Green washing has become a sophisticated machine that spills eloquent slogans and lush, green imagery featuring happy, smiling garment workers and rustic workshops that look like they belong in a 1940’s advert, in order to distract from the still highly prevalent unethical practices inherent to the 20th century fashion industry model, hidden within networks of opaque, undecipherable supply chains. It’s the oldest trick in the book, employed by even the most incompetent of birthday party magicians. Only this time we’re not digging into marzipan layered sponge cake on Disney princess plate sets, making the after-effects slightly less pleasurable.

What appear to be ethical and environmentally conscious business practices hide an abundance of negative side effects that lead us right back into the murky waters of ethical discourses. And naturally so; the question of what constitutes ethics has been hotly debated for centuries by the world’s greatest thinkers, to no resolute answer – making todays social justice warriors’ narrow, rigid standpoint of what defines ethics seem like a bit of an arrogant overstep. When we choose to look closely, we are perpetually reminded that complexity is a founding principle ingrained in the mechanics of nature; nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

Some bite-sized examples? Fake fur is generally made from non-biodegradable plastic. Vegan fashion does not actually equate to natural, plant-based raw material choices and processes, but to cheap plastics like PVC and heavy doses of toxic chemicals to treat textiles into having the appearance of the animal-based textures we are used to, as well as employing petroleum-based polyester and horrifyingly damaging rayon, a fabric so toxic its production was even banned in the United States, home of McDonalds. Go figure. In many cases, vegan is just a term glossed over your standard cheaply produced fast fashion products that promise to quickly fall apart with use, raising questions about what truly defines sustainability. As with “sustainable”, “ethical” and “eco-friendly”, the term “cruelty-free” is more ambiguous than it first appears.

And brands aren’t the only offenders - the fashion community is eager to slap the scout girl badge of honor onto their latest runway knock-off buy, acting as if the world has only just recently discovered that the world’s ecosystem is in critical danger. The truth is, the path to environmental activism is a deep trough, heavily worn by past innovators doing good work in the shadows for decades, and not because the world’s fashionistas decided to #ethicalfashion starting last year.

Nonetheless, luxury is perhaps where sustainability has a future – after all, it’s hard not to see the similarity between what constitutes sustainable fashion and the artisanal, in-depth work associated with iconic high-end luxury brands. When it comes to fast fashion however, the facts are far less forgiving: brands may be striving to do good, but what little positive impact they generate is overshadowed by an inherently unsustainable business model that betrays the emptiness of their promises: 52 collections per year, an ethical business does not make.

One of its biggest proponents is that it has allowed fashion to become a universal human right through making trends and runway knock offs affordable for the masses. But this line of logic is flawed – how can you justify a dress that costs less to produce – and buy - than a sandwich at a hipster joint? It seems like we are simply choosing to adopt a moral high ground when it best suits us – no one bats an eye at the ridiculously overpriced daily Starbucks that creates a significant dent in lower middle class budgets, but we somehow create an uproar at the idea that we should be paying a bit more on fast fashion items for the upgrades in quality, worker welfare and environmental protection.

Yet again, we are faced with the sort of ethical impasse regarded by the morally rigid: should it matter that people and entities are jumping onto the sustainability bandwagon for the wrong reasons, and sometimes with no real action to back up claims, if the end result is the sort of sweeping change that’s triggered when the world decides to collaborate as a collective?

What is important to remember is that the ecosystem we live in relies on balance; adopting an extremist stance on any ideology can blind you to an objective assessment of the facts, which does the noble pursuit towards the betterment of society no favors. Can we deny that things have changed for the better? Of course not, they most certainly have, and also thanks to the biggest offenders, who are also the ones with enough power and resources to implement and enforce significant measures towards a future where sustainability is the norm. Does that mean we should let them get away with false advertising? That would be another no. Illusions are for the blissfully unaware, unwilling to shoulder the burden of change with the rest of the world. All it takes is an unwavering commitment to authenticity – and if the facts show anything, its that change truly does love the relentless.

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