Greenwashing in Textiles

In her new article, journalist and founder of Live Frankly, Lizzie Rivera looks into the issue of greenwashing in organic and synthetic textiles.

Greenwashing in Textiles

With input from Christopher Stopes (Global Organic Textile Standard, GOTS), Lucy Todd (My Little Green Wardrobe) and William Lana (Greenfibres), Lizzie Rivera, journalist and founder of Live Frankly, explores the ways consumers can navigate through potentially misleading claims from brands.

I’m going to write this article in reverse, starting with the conclusion, because I want to make my position very clear from the outset:

Greenwashing in textiles is rife. And organic textiles aren't immune from this.

It’s intimidating to write that for a predominantly organic-supporting audience. But, what’s scarier still, is not writing that truth; instead becoming part of ‘Sustainability Inc’ and part of the greenwashing problem – despite the best of intentions.

And so, I start this article with its conclusion and now, I’ll go back to the beginning to explain how I reached it.

Spoiler alert: I’ll also backtrack a little, because I believe the (genuine) organic movement is part of the solution. I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t.

The problem with greenwashing

The definition of greenwashing, according to the Cambridge English Dictionary, is: “Behaviour or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.”

This can be seen in the ‘sustainable’ items fashion brands promote, which account for an insignificant 0.5% of their overall production [1]. It’s literally emblazoned on t-shirts in the form of feminist slogans made by disempowered garment workers [2]. And it’s in the ‘animal-friendly’ claims of synthetic materials that are made in ways that are far from friendly to the natural world [3].

“The worst thing for me about greenwashing is the lie. The lie, and the way it treats people, is the worst of humanity,” says William Lana, co-founder of GOTS-certified organic textile company, Greenfibres.

Images below: Greenfibres store; Greenfibres co-founder William Lana talks to HRH The Prince of Whales.

Founder of online store selling sustainable children’s clothing brands, My Little Green Wardrobe Lucy Todd agrees:

“Misleading claims can lead shoppers to unwittingly act in an unsustainable way. They stop that person from making that decision to buy from a better brand, which might actually have a positive impact socially, environmentally and economically.”

Image below: My Little Green Wardrobe products; Founder of My Little Green Wardrobe, Lucy Todd with daughter Evelyn.

Greenwashing in textiles: a problem with synthetics

Due to the size of the clothing market – which is projected to grow in value from £1.1tn in 2020 to £1.65tn by 2025 [4] – and the scale of consumer concerns, it’s unsurprising the Competition Markets Authority is said to be prioritising the fashion industry with its new guidelines and investigations into environmental claims. [5]

In fact, Changing Market’s Synthetics Anonymous report, estimates that up 96% of sustainability claims from the worst-offending brands flout the CMA guidelines. [6]

A major elephant in the room is the sheer amount we consume.

Few average consumers are aware that this skyrocketing production and consumption of clothes is enabled by cheap synthetic fibres, mostly polyester, which is found in over half of all textiles produced. If the fashion industry continues with business as usual, by 2030 almost three-quarters of our textiles will be produced from fossil fuels [7].

This is hardly in line with carbon targets. Beyond carbon emissions, this is also inextricably linked with other significant environmental harms including oil spills, methane emissions, water and air pollution, impacts on human health – particularly for communities near extraction sites – wildlife disruption and biodiversity loss [8].

These issues are often omitted from brand sustainability communications, which is a form of greenwashing, now in breach of CMA guidelines.

The huge issue of microfibres is also largely ignored. A recent study discovered that 73% of microfibre pollution in formerly pristine Arctic waters is from synthetic fibres that could be coming from textiles [9] – and yet synthetics, and especially recycled synthetics, perform highly in some sustainability standards.

A recent study discovered that 73% of microfibre pollution in formerly pristine Arctic waters is from synthetic fibres that could be coming from textiles – and yet synthetics, and especially recycled synthetics, perform highly in some sustainability standards.

So, how are consumers – of which nearly 1 in 3 claimed to have stopped purchasing certain brands or products because they had ethical or sustainability related concerns about them [10] – expected to make an informed decision?

They can’t. In fact, the greenwashing machine is so powerful around “recycled” plastics, it even misleads well-intentioned sustainable brands and sustainable fashion writers.

In theory, it’s better than virgin polyester. But, better doesn’t equate to good. Multiple reports state that recycled polyester clothing comes from recycled plastic bottles, which cannot be recycled again once they are made into clothing. Instead clothes made from ‘recycled plastic bottles’ add to the poor-quality garments already flooding the second-hand clothing market and quickly end up in landfill or are incinerated. This is hardly the true meaning of the circular economy.

Especially as there are also claims that demand for recycled plastics is already outstripping supply, leading to concerns that virgin polyester is being substituted for its recycled counterpart in up-to two thirds of textile products. [11] Sigh.

Greenwashing in organic textiles

This, so far, has been fairly safe ground. Synthetic materials and fast-fashion brands are easy targets for an article on greenwashing. It’s important we include it, however, to put the rest of this article into context.

I was looking forward to getting stuck into writing this article and initially envisaged creating a definitive guide of the type I yearn for as a consumer – organic cotton in, recycled polyester out, virgin polyester out out (see above).

But, alas, it’s not that simple because greenwashing extends to organic textiles.

“Whereas for food, organic is legally underpinned through international regulation and UK law, there is no such protection for organic textiles,” explains Christopher Stopes, from Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which sets international standards for organic textile certifications across the world.

“Whereas for food, organic is legally underpinned through international regulation and UK law, there is no such protection for organic textiles”

Stopes believes that to be truly organic textiles must have two components: the first, use organically farmed fibres; the second, that these are processed inline with organic standards. It should not be a choice between the two. This is a point of complexity that GOTS is trying to drive home.

Stopes explains that a lack of regulation also means uncertified brands make misleading organic claims – such as labeling a t-shirt ‘made with organic cotton’, when in fact it may have very low levels of organic fibre in it.

Labels may be technically accurate, but that doesn’t mean they are clear to a consumer trying to support organic. This is a problem because it undermines the integrity of the global organic movement.

It hinders progress, because while claims of organic materials are seemingly on the rise, organic cotton production remains stagnant at 0.95% of global production. [12]

Stopes maintains this is one of the reasons credible third-party certification is so important. It’s been proven time and time again that most brands can’t be trusted to mark their own homework.

“Businesses certifying to GOTS gives an assurance to the final consumer purchasing the product. Without that you don't really know what you’re getting”

GOTS is widely touted as a ‘Gold Standard’ when it comes to certification. [13]

But, even GOTS cannot guarantee a perfect supply chain. Even though its certification includes social criteria, its powers do not extend to the farms, where the fibres are grown.

This side of things belong to other organic farm standards and certifying bodies, and are linked to government schemes. They don’t typically include social standards. Therefore, workers’ rights are not regulated and wages are not necessarily in line with a living wage.

GOTS have submitted a motion to include social standards for organic farming to IFOAM Organics International, a global body set up in 1973 to develop organic production around the world.

But, as this is a global issue, it’s unlikely to happen any time soon.

“So, similarly to when brands are called out for having dubious 2030 or 2050 targets, is this greenwashing?” I ask Stopes.

Stopes replies that in an unregulated market, where there is no legal basis for the use of the term ‘organic’ in relation to textiles, some businesses are making fraudulent claims.

But, sustainable-textile expert Lana maintains it’s not as prevalent in the organic textiles sector as the media – or even reading this – might lead you to believe. He is adamant GOTS-certified organic textiles are still the best option we have.

“The organic cotton textile industry recognises that transparency and trust building is critical in this time of slightly cynical sales practices and underhand corporate behaviours,” says Lana.

Image below: Greenfibres organic sheets and nightshirts.

“GOTS is 15-years-old and needs to move out of adolescence into young adulthood.”

In many ways, so do we as consumers. The answers are very rarely black or white, and we have to be able to evolve the conversations to explore the less comfortable grey areas.

As Lana puts it: “We’re all operating in an imperfect system and we have to be honest about the compromises that have to be made while we work towards a truly solutions-focused green textile industry.”

This means we need to inspire consumer confidence in organic, which research clearly demonstrates is better for the environment. We also need to work to improve standards to ensure best practice from field-to-shop (and, ideally, end-of-life), including ensuring that all workers are treated and paid properly.

Greenwashing in textiles: a social issue

A recent report, The Great Greenwashing Machine Part 1 [14], takes us back to the roots of sustainability.

Essentially, it states that the very definition of greenwashing I quoted at the beginning of this article is flawed, because it refers only to the environment and omits people.

It’s pretty scathing in its assessment:

“In fashion, sustainability appears to have become an elitist, even imperialistic concept in which the interests of the global north define the conversation. These interests are both those of the present generation, whose right to purchase and discard clothing in volume the system seeks to preserve (by switching to ‘circularity’ and ‘more sustainable’ fibers), and the interests of future generations whose needs are to be secured at the sacrifice of producers whose fibers do not meet the global north’s unilaterally declared ‘sustainability’ standards.”

The biggest impact of this – on the livelihoods of farmers at the very beginning of the supply chain, and those in the huge industry, spinning, weaving, dyeing and making – largely goes unseen and unreported. It concludes:

“Everyone from fashion conglomerates to bloggers must stop conflating environmental impact with sustainability and put impact on the poorest and most vulnerable where it belongs – at the heart of every sustainability undertaking, evaluation, measurement, and recommendation.”

If we were to do this, natural fibres would surely outrank fossil fuel fibres in sustainability rankings. Organic fibres would surely rank even higher.

In the meantime, we must continue to call out greenwashing where we find it and make space for more nuanced conversations – and, therefore, room for progress.

I asked everyone I spoke to for this article, for advice on how to avoid greenwashing; how to tell apart the brands with genuinely good practices from those with genuinely good marketing teams:

“Look for an accreditation and certification scheme. It must be independent of the brand and go beyond an individual company making self-claims and self-audits,” says Stopes.

Be skeptical. Be wary of ambiguous buzzwords like ‘natural’, ‘zero-waste’, ‘eco’, ‘green’, ‘planet friendly’ when there's no more information provided”

“Ask for specifics to determine if the brand is investing in a sustainable system or if they’re investing in marketing. If a brand is promoting organic materials, ask if the people in the supply chain are paid a living-wage. If a brand is promoting recycled materials, ask are they also looking at reducing production numbers? Do they provide aftercare or take back schemes?”

Greenfibres’ Lana assures me: “As soon as you start becoming a questioning consumer, automatically, no matter what you purchase, you're already making a difference, you're already in a different category than 90% of us who just go about our business and consume without much thought.”

And, if someone comes back to you with an answer like Lana’s when you ask them about their materials –

“I love the stuff that is the organic cotton grown on the Syrian-Turkish border, which is hand-picked and then cleaned, washed, graded, carded and turned into yarns just 10 miles from the farm. Then it goes to my favourite weaving mill in the Czech Republic and after it's woven into fabric, it goes to Germany for a high-quality, super-ethical finish, before arriving on our doorstep.”

– then you can be confident you're buying from a brand you can trust.

My advice would be to not give up in your pursuit of better practice. It can feel overwhelming, but there are great brands and brilliant people doing genuinely good work, and we need to support them. As Maya Angelou famously said: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”








[8] Alice Wilby, sustainable fashion consultant and spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, quoted in:







Lizzie Rivera is the founder of ethical lifestyle hub Live Frankly. She is a journalist writing with a decade's worth of experience and has been focused on sustainability since 2014.

Lizzie Rivera, journalist and founder of Live Frankly

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