Dr. Regina Henkel
Author:
Dr. Regina Henkel

Sustainability between Greenwashing and Real Innovation

Is It All Just Greenwashing? How to Recognise Genuine Sustainable Commitment

Fashion and sports have had a new trend word for years: sustainability. Everyone wants to be sustainable somehow and promises consumption with a clear conscience. But how credible is it when even fast fashion providers stylize themselves as sustainability pioneers? Where does greenwashing begin, where does real sustainability? There are no clear rules, but there are at least a few criteria by which you can recognize genuine commitment.

If you are really looking for more sustainable products, you have to take a closer look.
If you are really looking for more sustainable products, you have to take a closer look.

Even if the term sustainability already annoys some people, it's good that everyone talks about it and wants to be sustainable! The topic has really taken off in recent years, and that's exactly what we need. Whereas in sports it used to be all about who could develop the lightest, toughest, most breathable and trendiest jacket, today brands are outdoing each other in the field of sustainable ideas. That is great.
But: these ideas are enormously diverse and hardly comparable with each other, and that's exactly what's confusing. What is sustainable? Is a GOTS certificate for a capsule collection enough or the goal of climate-neutral production from 2050? Is a jacket made of recycled polyester more sustainable than a recyclable shoe? And if a tree is planted for every product sold, does it still matter what kind of product it is?
Fashion is among the worst offenders in greenwashing, consumer protection agencies now say, and are calling for the development of cross-border guidelines to help prevent greenwashing and misleading marketing. Much is just emerging. Here are a few criteria to help better assess the issue.

Climate Neutrality: Emissions Reduced or Just Certificates Bought?

The Wettbewerbszentrale in Germany has just sued four companies for advertising their products as climate neutral. Among others, the food discounter Aldi Süd had launched the first climate-neutral sneaker in June 2020. This was "misleading" and "intransparent", complain the consumer advocates, because the climate neutrality had not come about because emissions were reduced in the product, but simply because the CO2 emissions were compensated for with the purchase of certificates. But this detail is concealed in the advertising.
Conclusion: Anyone who advertises with the term "climate neutrality" should also provide details of how this was achieved. Anyone who fails to do so can be accused of greenwashing. And anyone who announces today that they will be climate neutral in 30 years is obviously in no particular hurry.

Launched with a lot of marketing: The climate-neutral sneaker from Aldi Süd.
Launched with a lot of marketing: The climate-neutral sneaker from Aldi Süd.

Only a Single Product or the Whole Collection?

Offensively "green" labelled products have a small flaw: they denounce the rest of the collection or assortment as non-green. Some brands and retailers have understood this and therefore invested in the sustainability of all products.
But there are also brands for whom a quick PR fire is good enough. They would rather put out a sustainable marketing product on a regular basis than go to great lengths to convert their bestsellers to sustainable processes. Many fast-fashion suppliers work according to this principle. Those who only advertise individual green products or lines and remain silent about it in the main collection are probably only at the beginning of their sustainability strategy.

Certificates: Valid Signs for More Sustainable Processes

In recent years, the number of product certificates has increased enormously: Standard 100 by Oeko-Tex, GOTS, bluesign, Global Down Standard, Global Traceable Down Standard, Global Wool Standard, Global Recycled Standard, Recycled Claim Standard, Fair Trade, Green Button, Cradle-to-Cradle... The abundance of seals and logos that promise us a sustainable product can hardly be overlooked. But they often only consider one (sometimes very small) aspect of the product, mostly the material, and only a few consider the entire supply chain. In addition, many standards continue to develop and focus on additional aspects. Staying up to date is a challenge even for professionals.
There are still a few tips: Basically, a certificate is better than none as long as the publisher is a recognized institute or an independent organization.
A quick look on the Internet will help. No seal covers everything. Be careful with company seals, this could be a pure advertising idea. Counterexample: Sustainability pioneer Vaude has provided its most sustainable products with the company's own Green-Shape logo - because no other seal reflects the wealth of aspects.

Here's recycling taken to its logical conclusion: On's recyclable running shoe, available only by subscription.
Here's recycling taken to its logical conclusion: On's recyclable running shoe, available only by subscription.

Recycling: Already Reality or a Labeling Scam?

Recycling is another one of those terms where there is a lot of confusion and obfuscation. What does it mean when a product is made from recycled polyester? For the consumer, it means: great, a used garment has been made into a new one, and so it goes on and on. But this is wrong. It is possible to recycle textiles made of pure polyester, and even the first mixed fabrics can be separated from each other again in the laboratory, but there are still no collection systems that sort used clothing according to fibre type so that it can be made into new clothing again.
Recycled polyester is almost always made from recycled PET bottles. So here the textile industry recycles the waste of the food industry. There is still no talk of closed material cycles. But in principle: recycled material is a start and at least better than using up new raw materials. Real textile recycling is still a tough nut to crack for the industry.

Second-Hand: Consumption Incentive or Really Sustainable?

The rule is: the longer a product can be used, the more sustainable it is because it does not have to be replaced by a new product. So those who invest in the longevity of their products, e.g. through repair services, are acting responsibly. Furthermore, long-lasting products are better suited for the second-hand market. Some brands have started to take back their worn products, repair them and resell them as second-hand, for example The North Face. Also big fashion chains like H&M collect used clothes and reward their customers with vouchers.
The difference: H&M also takes back old clothes, but does not recycle them as second-hand, but sells them to old clothes recyclers. These are the same companies that empty the old clothes containers. These in turn finance themselves mainly through long-lasting clothes because they can be sold as Second-Hand goods. The rest is turned into rags or incinerated for a fee. However, it is precisely the growing amount of cheap fast fashion that is destroying this business model in the long run. Seen in this light, the collectible offer of fast fashion is more an attempt to lure customers into the store and to fuel consumption.

Brands cannot directly influence working conditions in their production plants, but they can work towards it.
Brands cannot directly influence working conditions in their production plants, but they can work towards it.

Memberships: Moving Forward Faster Together

Many organizations support brands on their way to becoming more sustainable, without this commitment being visible later on the product as a certificate. The best example is the Fair Wear Foundation. It does not award any certificates, you can only become a member as a brand or retailer. Those who take this step commit themselves to improving working conditions in their production facilities worldwide, up to the payment of living wages. Currently, 128 brands have committed themselves to this goal.
However, this does not mean that their production plants are all already oases of bliss. Fair Wear sees itself as a learning initiative. This means that members work together on new strategies to support production companies so that their workforces have a better life. Members of Fair Wear set themselves new goals every year, for example, and those who achieve or exceed them are allowed to advertise their leader status. Those who consistently fail to meet them, signaling disinterest, are kicked out.
Conclusion: Those who join in and stick with it want to change something.

Transparency: A Measure of Credibility

Anyone who wants to be sustainable but denies information or does not make it available is not credible. In recent years, a number of unwritten laws have fallen, for example that one does not reveal where one produces. These years of secrecy have made it possible for abuses to go undetected for so long. Equally outdated is the idea that competitors should not be allowed to cooperate. The problems are too big to be solved alone. So anyone who makes public which committees they are involved in and where they produce, or even where each individual product was made, has nothing to hide. Jack Wolfskin was the first major brand in the outdoor industry to take this step. Not only have organizations moved to publish their audits in recent years, but brands are now doing the same on their websites. It's instructive to take a look here.

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Dr. Regina Henkel
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Dr. Regina Henkel
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