Ever since sustainability is becoming of bigger interest to the consumer many big brands try to hop on the sustainability train. Because of consumers higher ethical standards greenwashing is on the rise, too. Not surprisingly, it is increasingly more difficult to know – for us as much as for you – which brands truly meet those higher ethical standards.
Many brands are joining initiatives or coalitions, such as the Better Cotton Initiative, which sound genuine and promising at first but we have to ask ourselves: is that really the case or are they only a shallow promise without any clear measures? With this article we hope to shed some light on greenwashing and sustainability initiatives, as well as coalitions and commitments, that unfortunately stand for no real change in the fashion industry.
Whenever we do research for articles or on brands we notice that a lot of bigger names in the fast fashion industry like H&M, Lindex and Inditex advertise with being highly transparent and trying to be more sustainable. In order to do so they throw around names of initiatives, certificates and commitments we as consumers have never heard of before. But they sound promising. Better Cotton Initiative, STICA, Pack4Good, CanopyStyle, Recycled Polyester Commitment and The 2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge to name just a few we came across. Ever heard of them? What do they actually stand for?
The commitments, coalitions, initiatives and certificates we just mentioned might sound good on paper, but what’s behind them? Oftentimes you will see big companies join commitments, challenges and goals claiming that everyone who is partaking wants to make a specific change until a specific date. Unfortunately though, this does not mean at all that they have to keep their word even if they sign those goals and commitments. It’s more of a ‘we’ll try’ and not a ‘we will do this’. Sadly, it’s really more often the former as many companies are not even close to reaching these goals. This being said, there are also brands that participate in these commitments, driving real change and doing their part. Which makes it even harder to know who is actually trying and who just wants to make claims for marketing purposes.
Greenwashing and sustainability initiatives
A big fashion company we all know is H&M. The brand came under fire for yet another episode of greenwashing just recently. Something notable about H&M that many people don’t know is that the company co-founded the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) back in 2005 after a roundtable initiated by WWF. Kind of funny to think about how such a big company – taking into account all the initiatives, goals and its transparency – has been making promises for 15 years now. That’s a whole teenager’s life. For now, though, let us have a closer look at the Better Cotton Initiative.
Let’s have a closer look at BCI!
The other co-founders of the initiative next to H&M are Adidas, IKEA and GAP, as well as some NGOs including WWF and Oxfam. The goal of BCI in their own words is “to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future”. However, this does not mean that the clothes you buy with a Better Cotton Initiative tag are made from cotton that was actually made ethically and sustainably. Unfortunately, there are almost no regulations when it comes to the clothes produced by a BCI approved producer. Which makes it apparent that greenwashing and sustainability initiatives go hand in hand.
The French documentary „Coton: l’envers de nos tee-shirts“ (watch the German version here) on the Better Cotton Initiative revealed the horrible conditions in many of the production sites in Bangladesh. It showed children working with dangerous machines or during the night which are both illegal in Bangladesh. Moreover, one of the managers explained to the undercover journalist how at the time they didn’t even have any BCI cotton in their warehouse and were instead using cotton from Uzbekistan – which we can only assume was not sourced ethically or sustainably but would still get a BCI tag later on. They then revealed how in every shirt they produce no rules applied to how much BCI cotton actually had to go into the garments. It could be 100%, 50% or just 5%.
BCI approved cotton pieces aren’t necessarily organic cotton at all.
Due to this lack of rules and regulations and a big rise in BCI approved manufacturers that are not using actual organic cotton many farmers decided to stop producing organic cotton and instead produce cheaper and genetically manipulated cotton that is nowhere near sustainable. Farmers explain how this way they can have two harvests a year instead of just one. So you see, it’s a downward spiral.
Let’s look at some other initiatives. What is ‘Cotton made in Africa’?
Cotton Made in Africa (CmiA) is an initiative by the Aid For Trade foundation founded by the German entrepreneur Michael Otto. The goal of CmiA is to help small farms in Africa to improve their living and working conditions and to protect the environment by helping them to help themselves through trade instead of donations. On the board of the initiative you can find several corporations of the fashion industry, as well as non-profits like WWF, Welthungerhilfe and others.
Is Cotton made in Africa better than the Better Cotton Initiative?
In 2013 the Better Cotton Initiative expanded and since then Cotton made in Africa is benchmarked with BCI. This means that farmers who live up to the standards of CmiA can also sell the cotton they produce as Better Cotton. However, CmiA made it clear that they have higher standards than BCI when it comes to sustainability. For example, CmiA does not support the growth and production of genetically modified cotton. So, farmers who have partnered with their program only use cotton seeds that have not been genetically modified. On top of that, the profits CmiA makes gets partially put into school education for African children and into training and education programs for the farmers. Cotton made in Africa also has quite strict rules when it comes to water use. Their cotton can only be produced with rain water which is better for the environment. While there are similarities to BCI, CmiA seems to be more trustworthy and of integrity.
Are there any other trustworthy certification programs and initiatives?
Yes, there are a few others that you can trust as they have stricter regulations and controls. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Oeko-Tex and FairTrade are certificates – not initiatives – that ensure traceability and stricter controls and rules.
Clothing with tags including GOTS certified cotton ensures organic and more environmentally friendly cultivation. On top of that social standards have to be met as well.
FairTrade focuses mostly on the ethical side and working conditions of farmers and workers, also making sure that the workers and farmers have a say in their work.
The most common tag mentioning Oeko-Tex you might know is the Standard 100 by Oeko-Tex. The tag ensures that no harmful substances like chemicals have been used.
Other certifications are the Global Recycled Standard, Organic Content Standard and the Responsible Wool Standard. The NGO Textile Exchange owns and administers all of these standards and is known for having developed several other standards for the textile industry so that specific claims regarding sustainability can be supported officially. The non-profit focuses on global sustainability and is trying to positively impact our climate.
So what do we need to remember about greenwashing and sustainability initiatives?
Before buying clothing claiming to be sustainable with tags and certificates you haven’t heard of before just because they sound promising make sure to look into them properly instead of believing them blindly. While a product certified by the Better Cotton Initiative could mean that 100% of a shirt was made with “better cotton” keep in mind that it could also only be 10% (or even less!). No matter what the actual amount is, we as consumers, will never know if the product was made with genetically modified seeds or if children made our clothes. Some garments will have multiple tags and certifications, so always look out for the more trustworthy ones we mentioned above.
A quick google search usually only takes a few minutes so don’t shy away from researching before you buy. General rule of thumb from us is: The more initiatives and certificates a brand has to show you to convince you that it is in fact sustainable the more likely it is that the brand is participating in greenwashing. At the end of the day it is on you to make a conscious decision for yourself with the means available to you.