Sustainable Fashion’s True Colors

Friday, September 8, 2023

The fashion industry is growing exponentially, as are marketers’ use of claims about “sustainability” and other environmental attributes of fashion garments. This month’s featured article in ELR—The Environmental Law Reporter explores recent instances of greenwashing in the fashion industry and efforts to address the problem, and proposes specific ways that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) should improve its guidelines for environmental marketing claims and expand enforcement.


As author Carolyn Kennedy explains in "Sustainable" Fashion’s True Colors: A Proposal for "Restyling" the FTC Green Guides, fashion is a $2.4 trillion global industry, responsible for an estimated 2% to 8% of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. The production and consumption of fashion garments pollute the natural environment, accounting for 20% of the world’s wastewater and 20% to 35% of microplastic flows into the oceans, and results in millions of tons of landfill waste each year. Child labor and other hazardous and exploitative labor practices also pervade the textile and garment supply chain. On top of it all, the growing trend of “fast fashion” has resulted in unsustainable levels of overproduction and overconsumption.

Consumer demand for “green” fashion in the United States is significant and growing, but so too is greenwashing. The FTC regulates unfair or deceptive marketing practices, and greenwashing of fashion products to American consumers brings violators clearly within the scope of its enforcement authority. While greenwashing has been a regulatory focus for decades, the Commission’s current Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (Green Guides) have not been updated since 2012. A revision is currently in the process of regulatory review.

In addition to illustrating how potentially deceptive environmental claims arise in the context of the fashion industry, Kennedy’s article provides an overview of FTC authority to regulate greenwashing and analyzes how the Green Guides’ current language and the narrow focus of recent enforcement actions fall short of protecting fashion consumers. The author explores possible broad changes to enforcement of the Green Guides and suggests additions, deletions, and examples for their existing language. She also incorporates and responds to some of the comments submitted during the public process.

Despite their outdatedness, Kennedy concludes, the Green Guides can provide a useful, proven, and potentially powerful tool that the Commission should and must use to address this pressing environmental and consumer protection issue. As one commenter put it, “[t]he very fabric of society is at stake here.”

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