What Makes Green “Greenwashing”

Hey everyone. Here we go with round two in my ongoing series on the connections between fashion and the environment.  For those of you just joining the conversation catch up on Part 1. When I’m not working on BTS with Layla I have a day job working as an environmental lawyer. This ongoing series of posts focuses on sustainability in fashion and why supporting fair wages and made in the USA fashion is so important.  These topics are near and dear to Layla and I and bring together my BTS and environmental lawyer worldsJoin in the conversation in the comments or make suggestions for future posts on sustainable manufacturing and fashion. Hope you enjoy!


Part 2: What Makes Green “Green”: sorting out the meaning of buzzwords like renewable, eco, and sustainable in fashion

Green buzzwords and products seem to be everywhere these days. Whether it is “green week” on your favorite TV channel or “green” household products lining the shelves at your local mega-mart, “green” has gone mainstream.   While many of these “green” products do leave a smaller environmental footprint than their “not-so-green” cousins, the rush to turn environmental consciousness into a marketing tool has taken over.

With everything under the sun being labeled as “green” and the words “eco”, “organic”, “sustainable”, “renewable”, and the like tossed around for all manner of products, it’s easy for even an educated buyer to be confused or misled because of “greenwashing”.  Greenwashing is a term that is used to describe products that claim to be earth-friendly, but are not, make unproven environmental claims, or are only superficially friendly to the earth.


Sorting out what each “green” term means, and which terms actually mean something and aren’t just “greenwashed” fluff, can be tough. Labels such as Certified Organic or Fair Trade (which is just expanding certification to apparel from things like coffee and tea) have specific definitions and products with these labels are often certified by an organization that sets specific standards. In contrast a term such “renewable” or “natural” could mean many things.

Even still a product made of organic material isn’t necessarily environmentally friendly.  For example—a shirt could be made of organic cotton, but be dyed in a polluting dye-house in China (see Part 1 of this series), or could be sewn in a factory that does not pay a living wage.  This same organic cotton could come from China, be cut in Mexico, and sewn, in India—adding up to a large carbon footprint.

With so many ill-defined eco-terms being used to describe products it’s hard for a consumer to know if what they bought is actually earth friendly.  A recent study of 5,000 consumer products found that a full 95% committed at least one sin of “greenwashing”—these sins included “fibbing about or having no proof of environmental claims, vague or poorly defined marketing language, such as “all-natural,” and the use of fake labels designed to imply a product has third-party certification or endorsement of its claims.”


In the world of fashion “green” claims are just as common and only some of them pass the “greenwashing” test.  Fabrics made of bamboo have been touted as natural, green, and environmentally friendly, but are produced using a non-natural chemical process that leads to air and water pollution.  The bamboo is broken down to be spun into fibers using acetate (not so different from nail polish remover). These deceptive eco-claims led the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to crack down on companies who were “Bamboozaling” consumers by falsely marketing their clothing made of bamboo fabrics using terms such as natural, and environmentally friendly-when the fabric was in fact Rayon.  The FTC said that “Even when bamboo [was] the “plant source” used to create rayon, no traits of the original plant are left in the finished product.”

Other fibers used in fabrics can be more environmentally friendly—although there are still eco-pluses and minuses.  Cotton is considered the world’s ‘dirtiest’ crop-even though it covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land traditional cotton production uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other single major crop. Organic cotton is grown in a manner that doesn’t use harmful pesticides, thus sharply reducing the environmental impact.  Despite these huge reductions in impact, like all cotton, organic cotton uses an enormous amount of water to grow, which in and of itself is an environmental impact.   Another eco-friendly fiber is modal.  Made from sustainably harvested beech trees-the wood is broken down using chemicals in a “closed-loop” process that reuses much of the chemicals. The fibers and then spun and knit into fabric.  Although similar, this process is far more environmentally friendly than the process that turns bamboo into fiber as the chemicals are reused and not discarded.

As a consumer, if you want to make an eco-conscious choice when it comes to fashion, it is important to consider many things. The type of fabric, trim, and other materials that create the garment are important as is the origin of the raw materials and dyes used to color the garment.  Where a garment is manufactured matters as environmental and fair labor conditions and wages vary enormously around the world. The distance between where materials are sourced and the garment is made also matters, since global transport of materials adds to the carbon footprint of a garment.

Ultimately the most important thing to look for is transparency from the company or designer-whether a garment is marketed as eco-friendly or not. Looking beyond the buzz words and certification logos to see the real impact to the planet once the whole picture of raw materials and production are looked at.


At the moment it seems like the Wild West in the world of green products—with “greenwashing” still common place. Thankfully the FTC has taken the first steps to do a better job of spelling out how companies are allowed to market “green” products.  The so called “Green Guides” spell out what a company has to do to describe or verify the legitimacy of their “green” product.  The FTC recently announced that these guides would be updated to respond to the explosion of “green” products and the “greenwashing” of so many products with no eco-credibility marketed in a blatantly misleading fashion.

Hopefully this effort will help establish better standards in labeling and certification of “green” products and “green” fashion, allowing us all to become more eco-conscious consumers.


Coming up in Part 3 of the series I will look at the socio-economic and labor issues surrounding the fashion industry.  Later, in Part 4, I will talk about Between the Sheets, the values our business embodies, and the “green” efforts we have undertaken to reduce our impact on the planet.

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