Sustainable Fashion or Greenwashing? Decoding Industry Initiatives

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By: Anika Dewjee from Northwestern University

The term “fast fashion” was first coined by the New York Times in the 1990s to describe Zara’s mission to get a garment from design to stores in only 15 days. This strategy continues to be embraced by many leaders in the industry, including Forever 21, UNIQLO, and H&M. The allure of this model lies in its capacity for rapid design, production, distribution, and marketing processes, allowing retailers to produce large quantities of greater variety to offer at lower prices. Brands like Zara and H&M have leveraged innovative technology and business strategies to launch 12-24 new clothing collections each year, giving consumers the trendiest fashion and using the allure of “newness” to draw them back in.⁶ According to Bain & Company, “clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2015, while the life span of garments shrank”.¹ Fast fashion is not a fad, but rather a lasting and growing trend in the industry. According to Statistica, the global fast fashion market was valued at around $123 billion in 2023, and expects to reach $185 billion in 2027, with steady growth between.⁷

This model, however, bears a tremendous cost to our planet, as “fashion production comprises 10% of total global carbon emissions”–a figure equivalent to the emissions of the entire European Union.³ These rapid and intensive methods dry and pollute water sources, while 85% of these textiles will end up in landfills every year. The US Department of Labor has also found evidence of child labor and deplorable working conditions imposed by companies that prioritize profits over human welfare.³  

The lack of transparency in the fashion industry makes it nearly impossible to measure the exact environmental impact that it has.⁶ The absence of standardized language or enforced regulations in the sector leaves consumers uneducated about the practices of their favorite brands. Many corporate responsibility reports (CSRs) have also been proven inaccurate, as the emissions profiles of brands often remain unaudited by external parties.

The Sustainable Fashion Forum has linked the growing issue of transparency to the lack of traceability of clothing from raw materials to finished products. For example, “50% of the world's largest fashion brands disclose little or no information about their supply chain,” and “only 12% of brands worldwide provide information about their raw material suppliers.”⁹

Many players in the industry utilize complex global supply chains, making it challenging to track and regulate the effects of production. This complexity also provides companies with an easy way to violate environmental regulations and fair labor standards.

According to Bain & Company, fashion brands must increase transparency, educate consumers, and make sustainable purchases more appealing and convenient.¹ This is an objective that many leading fashion brands are publicly working towards. Examples from Nike, Zara, and H&M outline the unique ways brands work towards achieving sustainability and transparency, especially in our current age of heightened environmental consciousness.  

However, many of these efforts are examples of greenwashing: the practice of introducing misleading or exaggerated claims about the environmental efforts of a company to create an image of being more conscious than it is in reality. Companies engage in this practice in order to attract environmentally conscious customers, enhance brand image, and differentiate from competitors, all to boost sales without making significant investments in genuine eco-friendly initiatives.  

“Nike Refurbished”

Nike, the leading sports brand in the world, launched a similar concept called “Nike Refurbished.” With this model, Nike takes in like-new, gently worn, or slightly imperfect products to sanitize and repair before they are resold at select Nike stores for a discounted price. Refurbished items that do not meet sellable conditions are donated or recycled “to give them new life and another wear.” Nike has also created “Circularity: Guiding the Future of Design,” a guide that supports the call to action for the industry and promotes circularity, or the concept of “creating products that last longer and are designed with the end in mind.”⁴

Despite these sustainability initiatives, Nike has faced much criticism for its “Move to Zero” campaign, which outlines Nike’s plan to achieve zero carbon and zero waste in its practices. Although it has good intentions, this campaign has set targets and goals that are lofty and unrealistic, all to create a positive image–a prime example of greenwashing. Even Nike’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Noel Kinder, admitted that goals including “diverting 99% of all footwear manufacturing waste from landfills and reducing water consumption in Nike’s entire supply chain by 20% per unit by 2020” were not entirely feasible.²

Zara’s “Join Life”

Zara’s initiative primarily focuses on its goals, outlining the steps it will take to achieve each one to eventually reach net zero emissions by 2040. The website also mentions the company's previous sustainability achievements and programs, including Zara’s Sustainability Innovation Hub, which utilizes revolutionary methods to limit the environmental impacts of its products to more towards sustainability. This project currently leverages more than 200 startups in the fields of new materials, circularity, processes, and traceability to achieve this goal.¹⁰

Zara has also recently entered the resell market in the UK through its pre-owned service, which allows shoppers to sell or repair their unwanted and damaged apparel. Recently, this initiative has sparked controversy, with accusations pointing towards Zara's potential involvement in greenwashing practices. By highlighting the sustainability of their business through the new resale program, Zara attempts to cultivate a positive image without addressing fundamental environmental concerns related to their core business practices and production methods.

H&M’s Sustainability Initiative

H&M’s outlines its initiatives and commitment to sustainability, transparency, fairness, innovation, and change. Specifically, its “Take Care” section includes tips on washing, caring for, repairing, and remaking clothes to “make fashion sustainable and sustainability fashionable.” In 2013, H&M began the first and largest clothing collection campaign, placing recycling bins in its stores, promising customers that donated items would be re-worn, reused, or recycled. By donating clothes, customers also received a coupon to use towards their next purchase–a genius tactic that pleases environmentally-conscious customers through monetary means.⁸

This effort, however, received much backlash after Bild and Aftonbladet, leading European newspapers, conducted investigations about where these clothes truly end up. Both found that instead of recycling locally, H&M sent old textiles halfway around the globe to developing countries.⁵ Despite initiatives like "Close the Loop" and "conscious" recycling, H&M's seemingly circular practices inadvertently contribute to increased consumption, accelerating the problem of discarded textiles.

These are just a few examples of the oldest and most prominent players in the fast fashion industry, but today, companies like Shein and Temu continue to revolutionize the industry. Newer companies are offering lower prices and quicker delivery times than ever seen before. Ultimately, fashion brands must  move beyond superficial initiatives and instead address the core environmental concerns associated with the production methods. It is imperative that sustainability and ethical practices take precedence over profit-driven greenwashing, a goal that is built on transparency.

1. D’Arpizio, Claudia, et al. “How Brands Can Embrace the Sustainable Fashion Opportunity.” Bain, 21 Oct. 2022,

2. Igini, Martina. “5 Fast-Fashion Brands Called out for Greenwashing.” Earth.Org, 17 Feb. 2023,

3. Maiti, Rashmila. “Fast Fashion: Its Detrimental Effect on the Environment.” Earth.Org, 22 May 2023,

4. “Nike Refurbished. Move to Zero.” Nike.Com, Accessed 11 Dec. 2023.

5. No author listed. (2023, December 28). Petition to Amancio Ortega: Stop Fast Fashion and Greenwashing Now. Avaaz.

6. Preuss, Simone. “H&M’s Response to Allegations of Dumping Textile Waste in Global South Highlights Industry’s Problems.” FashionUnited, FashionUnited, 28 June 2023,

7. Pucker, Kenneth P. “The Myth of Sustainable Fashion.” Harvard Business Review, 14 Jan. 2022,

8. Smith, P. “Fast Fashion Market Forecast Worldwide 2021-2027.” Statista, 4 Dec. 2023,

9. “Sustainability.” H&M, Accessed 11 Dec. 2023.

10. “Why Is It so Hard for Fashion Brands to Be Transparent?” The Sustainable Fashion Forum, The Sustainable Fashion Forum, 1 Nov. 2023,,about%20their%20raw%20material%20suppliers.

11. “Join Life: Zara United States.” JOIN LIFE | ZARA United States, Accessed 11 Dec. 2023.

More posts by Anika Dewjee.
Sustainable Fashion or Greenwashing? Decoding Industry Initiatives
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