Fast fashion and sustainability. These words are showing up more than ever now, in the discussion about unethical labor practices and the impact that mass production has on the environment. Given that 10 percent of global carbon emissions are a result of the fashion industry, the urgency for more sustainable options is evident. 

Global fashion search platform, Lyst, has tracked over a hundred million searches for keywords “ethical” and “sustainable” in the past year, a 66 percent increase since 2018. Searches for “sustainable cotton” are up by 16 percent, while “vegan leather” is up 119 percent. Needless to say, sustainable fashion is on the rise. It’s trendy. 

It’s trendy, and companies have started to notice and have started to change. All good things, right? The more awareness and more action there is surrounding sustainability, the better in theory. More responsibly produced clothing pollutes less, creates less waste, and provides more workers with non-exploitative jobs. That being said, part of being a responsible consumer is not to fall into the “trendiness trap.” While many companies have begun to lead the way in the sustainability movement, such as Levi’s and Patagonia, there is no shortage of brands that, to no surprise, do not actually care. However, companies are not lacking care because of the consumer. In fact, according to Forbes, research shows that 88 percent of consumers want brands to help them be more environmentally friendly. What is the disconnect? After all, it is important to consider that fashion is still an industry, and making money will always be the objective. Instead of investing in methods of actual sustainability, these companies use the idea and image of eco-friendliness as a marketing tool, to lure those trying to be more conscious and to keep old customers from seeking out more ethical alternatives. 

This is known as greenwashing, and it is more common than one might think. H&M is a prime example. While they may have launched a sustainability line, the 20,000 liters of water needed to produce their “100% organic cotton” t-shirt along with their massive overproduction of clothing does not seem to correspond to the idea of “sustainability”. Technically, it does not have to. There are actually no legal definitions for these marketing words such as “sustainable,” “green,” or “eco friendly,” making it almost too easy for companies like H&M to lie, or at best, misrepresent.

Green marketing survives off of loose definitions that cannot be controlled by The Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines due to their often ambiguous nature. More examples of popular brands that “greenwash”, or use the idea of sustainability as a marketing technique instead of a moral reform, are Lululemon and Uniqlo, among others. 

The problem is that most consumers will shop for what feels good on their conscience, while companies happily hide behind their misleading claims. Most importantly though, is to be truly aware of what you are buying. If you are looking to make your shopping more ethical, it is best to look into a brand’s sustainability statement and labor practices beforehand, which are available on all true sustainable brands’ websites. If a detailed statement is not available, this is a red flag—consumer beware. Sustainable companies will try to gain customer trust by disclosing their production information, which is beneficial. It makes the customer feel good about what they are buying, and nobody is in the dark. 

At the end of the day, what you spend your money on is a personal decision, but it is important not to fall into company traps when trying to change your habits. For now, our awareness is one of our biggest weapons against harmful marketing strategies and systems that mistreat workers and harm the environment.t is up to us to use that power as best we can.