As Gen Z enters the workforce, this generation is becoming a determining market for many fashion brands' success. Gen Z is concerned about the environment. Gen Z is curious about sourcing the primary materials used in their clothes and is not afraid to raise their voice whenever their questions are not answered.

These concerns have encouraged fashion brands to think of sustainability as an important factor in the way they produce, distribute, sell, and deal with the waste of their products. This is why we have started to see more fashion labels that talk about the use of recycled materials, compostable packaging, or some vocabulary around eco-friendly materials and production. 

There's also an element of coolness around sustainable products. Many people think of shopping at thrift stores as a trendy thing, more than a sustainable thing to do. Many cafes with locally sourced ingredients succeed, not necessarily because of their ethical methods but because of the way they present their product to the customer.

This phenomenon leaves many consumers confused because businesses are taking advantage of how sustainability is "trendy" and overuse words like "eco-friendly," "organic," or "green." The irresponsible use of these words makes clients think that their purchases are sustainable, but this is often not true. This misunderstanding is happening very frequently and is now known as greenwashing. 

Greenwashing will prevail in the fashion industry and many other industries as long as there are no strict regulations that make companies deliver accurate information about their products and services. However, what we can do as consumers and fashion followers, is to be informed and never hesitate to ask questions about what we are purchasing. 

It's very tempting to fall into the rabbit hole of an excellent marketing campaign with photographs surrounded by trees, effortless-looking models, and a narrative about connecting with nature and being your authentic self by purchasing X, Y, and Z. This is where greenwashing creeps in. Let's talk about a clear example that has been very popular in the last three years.

The Narrative in Telfar Bags

Telfar bags are the new fashion bag that celebrities, and fashion lovers desire. Image Courtesy of Grazia Daily

The Telfar bags started gaining significant media attention in 2020. They have done a spectacular job at making celebrities wear this bag and introduce it as an object of desire.

Telfar has multiple drops for different colorways, and they quickly sell out. You can add your name to the waitlist, choose the color you want, and receive your bag after a couple of months. The website states these bags are made after the order is processed, which is why it takes so long to place and receive the order.

There is a nice balance between exclusivity and inclusion. There is a limited number of units available, so as popular as the brand becomes, it's unlikely that it will become a mass-produced bag you see everywhere, as has happened with other fashion items. The brand releases different colors throughout the year, so the brand's followers are paying close attention to these drops. But the brand celebrates inclusion with huge marketing campaigns that celebrate people of all genders and races wearing Telfar bags. You don't need influences or a certain reputation to purchase a Telfar bag. The price is around $150 and $257, so it is an attainable price for many consumers in comparison with other fashion goods.

Many people in the fashion industry have referred to Telfar as a democratic way of purchasing a fashion item. Because, in comparison with exclusive luxury goods like Birkins, there is no restriction on who may or may not purchase a Telfar bag. 

Successful campaigns with inclusion in mind. Image Courtesy of Instagram.

Telfar has done a spectacular job making fashion democratic and available to more people. Image Courtesy of WWD.

The Telfar bags have become particularly attractive to Gen Z. The prices are not as high as most high fashion items. Still, Telfar gives an exclusive experience since the pieces are limited and the waiting period is long. This makes the bags special for many customers because not everyone is willing to go through this process to get a bag.

In terms of materials, Telfar sells its famous shopping bags under the premise of vegan leather. This is where the greenwashing problem starts. The narrative of inclusion + vegan leather + genderless + exclusive bags + $200 USD cost makes this product truly desirable to the consumer who is into fashion and has sustainability and social justice in mind. 

The problem with the vague concept of vegan leather is that several materials fall under this category, and not all of them are genuinely sustainable. By definition, vegan means that it doesn't come from animal sources. No animals are killed in the process. However, there are synthetic versions of leather that, technically, are vegan leather as well since they don't come from animal sources. These synthetic iterations of leather come from petroleum, are a form of plastic, and have a huge negative impact on the environment. Very often, the impact of synthetic leather is way bigger than the impact of natural leather that comes from cows whose meat is used by the food industry. 

Celebrities play a key role in the success of emerging fashion brands. Dua Lipa wears a big Telfar bag for a trip. Image Courtesy of Vogue. 

This doesn't mean that all plastic leather bags have the poor quality of a fast-fashion 20-dollar bag from the mall. Even within the wide spectrum of plastic leather, there are qualities, finishes, and methods of construction, so it's hard to put all plastic leather bags in the same box when there are other characteristics to consider. 

The lesson here is that there is no magic term that makes one product truly sustainable, long-lasting, and with no negative environmental impact. As many companies rely on these greenwashing words to be seductive to the consumer who cares about the environment and wants to make smart purchases, it is more important than ever that we ask all the questions we have regarding these products. Greenwashing in fashion is real! And remember that when companies don't want to answer a question, the lack of response is also an answer. 

When Net Zero is not equal to Zero

Greenwashing in fashion can be seen in many different ways. How can we really see that a product is carbon neutral? Image Courtesy of WRI Indonesia.

As many governments and non-profit organizations around the world are developing strategies to combat climate change, we understand what actions we should take in order to make this happen. According to the Paris Agreement, an international treaty signed by 193 parties, carbon emissions must be reduced by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. (UN). This agreement has made the parties involved think about ways to develop clean energies and notably reduce their CO2 emissions to fulfill this agreement.

This has made the term "Net Zero" widely used not only in government matters but also on social media, discussions, debates, and conversations around sustainability. This is why it's no surprise that now many fashion companies are using this term to tell products that claim to be sustainable. So when a company introduces a product that claims to be made with zero carbon emissions, what does this really mean?

Tropical deforestation contributes to 4.8 billion tonnes of carbon emissions per year. Many fashion companies contribute to these emissions. Image Courtesy of Conserve Energy Future. 

What most fashion companies do to support their Net Zero argument is to reduce their carbon emissions (in a percentage that can be as low as 0.01%) and then buy carbon offsets. Carbon offsetting is the reduction of carbon emissions in the environment. Several technologies can clean these emissions from the atmosphere, and companies would pay brokers to offset the carbon equivalent to the emissions they have released. There are now free carbon footprint calculators that help businesses of all sizes to have a precise estimate of their emissions so that they can pay a broker to offset an equivalent amount of these emissions. 

Brokers work with different projects since there are several ways to do carbon offsetting. One of the most popular ones is trees. The nature of trees is to sequestrate carbon from the atmosphere, which then is converted into oxygen. This is why trees play such an important role in Net Zero marketing campaigns, and you hear companies saying they will plant a tree for each X amount of dollars to compensate for their carbon footprint.

The bad news is that it's not as simple as it sounds. Many companies purchase reforestation projects in cheaper areas. For example, a fashion company may release tons of carbon emissions from their factories in China, but they will buy carbon offset in a reforestation project in Nicaragua. Reforestation is positive for the environment. However, the disproportion of carbon emissions and carbon offsets in terms of location creates a substantial problem.

Another important issue is deforestation because the narrative of planting trees is visually engaging for consumers, and many companies go as far as posting pictures of how they are "giving back to nature" when they are planting trees. However, there is no guarantee that these trees will be cut down in a matter of years, maybe even a matter of months. So there is not enough time for these trees to truly compensate for the carbon emissions they were planted for in the first place. 

How to avoid greenwashing

Shein hired a Head of Social, Environmental, and Governance, but what does their ultra-quick fast fashion model say about the sustainable concerns of the fashion brand? Image Courtesy of Green Matters.

Words matter. The words in the packaging of the products we buy engage us and attract us to them, and we often end up purchasing them. But as poetic, empowering, and attractive as these words may be, we need to be rational when it comes to making these shopping decisions.

Albert Einstein used to say: "The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing".

So when we use a fashion advertisement, campaign, package, or product that claims to be carbon neutral, 100% sustainable, vegan, or any other characteristic around sustainability, we can ask the questions "How?" "How much?" "Where can I verify this information?" If the answers are easy to find, then it's probably true because the fashion companies that take this commitment seriously will show their evidence on their website and on social media. They know how important this is to their customers, and they are proud to show their sustainability efforts.

If the information is wishy-washy and the vocabulary is vague, then it's probably a marketing strategy with no substantial evidence. 

Greenwashing in fashion will not go away any time soon. As the climate crisis becomes more important to more consumers, sustainable matters will be more important to more consumers, which will increase the greenwashing campaigns and marketing strategies we see in the products and services we buy. Don't hesitate to ask questions. Don't hesitate to be suspicious. Your decision to buy or not to buy shapes how this industry moves. That's the biggest power we have as consumers.