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Swept away in the greenwash

Are your favourite sustainable brands actually eco-friendly, or just claiming to be?

Asking the right questions, such as what makes a brand really sustainable, and demanding full transparency as consumers from these fashion houses can help drive the transformation.

In the mid-1980s, oil magnate Chevron contracted a series of expensive print and television adverts to enlighten the public on its sustainable acts. The famous campaign, dubbed “People do”, showed employees of the company protecting various wildlife animals and the natural environment in general. While the campaign had the desired effect, it was later discovered Chevron had breached both the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, and was spilling oil into wildlife sanctuaries. What they were up to, was greenwashing.

The term itself was coined by Jay Westerveld, and refers to the practice of making misleading assertions about the environmental merits of a service or product. Today, greenwashing continues to present as a serious issue in the world of sustainability.

In the fashion industry, evolution relies on innovation and can be applied to nearly all aspects of a company’s business model, including the sourcing of materials, production process, packaging, transport, labour, or the very product itself. Yet in order to have impact, opportunities for innovation necessitate reformative action, and while a number of fashion brands have shown interest in and subsequently applied more sustainable practices to their business operations, others have taken to exploiting this green trend with false claims of their eco-friendly activities.

Asking the right questions, such as what makes a brand really sustainable, and demanding full transparency as consumers from these fashion houses can help drive the transformation.

Joseph & Alexander Father and Son collection.

Often hiding under markers such as “green”, “eco”, “organic” or “fair trade”, these companies rake in huge profits, capitalising on the conscience of the conscious consumer. While not all brands are involved in the act of hiding their unethical practices under the guise of being “eco-friendly”, the apparel and automobile industries have the most greenwashing cases reported to date.

A notable form of greenwashing is making people believe “conscious fashion” equates to sustainable production techniques. While the items are produced using ecologically sound fabric, the manner in which the clothes are made is not always humane. Millions of labourers in garment-manufacturing countries such as India, Bangladesh and Cambodia are paid less than minimum wage to make these so-called environmentally friendly clothes we pick up. Naturally, the nature of the business sees brands wanting to keep their profits high and costs down. They work with factories willing to produce at the cheapest rate, and in turn many of these factories have been known to slash the wages of their workforce while cutting corners on workplace health and safety.

Engineering out Fashion Waste, a report released in 2018 by the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, addresses a multitude of issues in apparel production, including microfibre pollution in oceans and waste produced from the lifecycle of the clothes produced. Up to 700,000 microscopic fibres are released into our oceans every time a piece of clothing is washed, where they are ingested by sea animals and become part of the food chain, subsequently ending up in our bodies. The report also calls for brands and manufacturers to work with the government and other sustainable organisations to develop comprehensive frameworks that can best handle the issue of greenwashing.

As we know, corporate social responsibility is seen as an essential part of a company’s identity, helping position a business as responsible and ethical in the market — declarations that don’t always add up.

As individual consumers, we do not know enough about the industry and its tactics, especially when it comes to the crucial information pertaining to workers in the supply chain and its impact on society. We need to believe our voices on these issues matter and our shopping habits can play a significant role in changing things for the better. Asking the right questions, such as what makes a brand really sustainable, and demanding full transparency as consumers from these fashion houses can help drive the transformation. These actions will get you thinking about what brands you wear, how their products are made and what values they stand for. Don’t simply settle for “green” hashtags; instead, educate yourself on the brand and its story — from the sourcing of materials to the production conditions, to make informed decisions for yourself.

The 2018 Fashion Transparency Index found that five out of 200 major brands are about 60% transparent with the public. It should be noted that this study did not aim to evaluate brands on their eco-friendly practices but to see how many were actually willing to publicly reveal their environmental and human rights policies.

As shocking as the result may seem, it did reveal a 5% average increase over the previous year. Although the industry is experiencing a shift as an increasing number of brands taking accountability for their actions, we still have a long road ahead.

The writer is Founder of Joseph & Alexander

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