Empowering the Conscious Consumer: Technology and the Fashion Industry

In this guest piece, Sofia Vdovichenko takes a closer look at the impacts of technology on consumerism in the fashion industry. Sofia is a dual qualifying lawyer on route to become an Irish Solicitor and New York Attorney-at-Law. If you have have any further questions regarding this piece feel free to contact Sofia Vdovichenko or the editor of this piece, Matthew Berrick. Over to Sofia!

The current demand for more sustainable products and environmentally ethical business practices demonstrate a shift toward more conscious consumerism. However, many companies are exploiting this shift towards conscious consumerism, which is known as “greenwashing”. This article will discuss how technology could potentially unmask this marketing ploy exploiting consumers’ green ethics and beliefs, in effect, empowering the
consumer to make more informed purchase decisions in today’s fashion industry.

What is Greenwashing?

Climate change is real and so is the increasing realisation that one needs to be more responsible as a consumer by being more sustainably aware when shopping for their next pair of jeans or sweater. Many large corporations are using the growing sustainability awareness of shoppers as an opportunity to exploit the consumer’s ethics and beliefs.

“Greenwashing” can be explained as deceit. It is where a company gives a false impression or misrepresentation to the consumer about their business practices. For instance, that they are eco-friendly when, in fact, they are not. For example, the fast fashion brand, Zara, has recently announced that it will make its clothing from 100 percent sustainable fabrics by 2025, but this claim is not supported or verified. In fact, are many consumers even aware of the fact that there is no such thing as 100 percent sustainable fabrics and materials? This is misrepresentation.

While there is clearly a significant shift in a consumer’s environmental consciousness when buying clothing, not everybody can be said to be environmentally conscious enough to differentiate between what is “greenwashed” and what is truly “sustainable”. Simply because a company states that they are “sustainable” in some way, does not mean that they are.

So, is there a way that the consumer can become more informed about this to help them make the right decision, in accordance with their beliefs and ethics, about where to buy next?

Legal Definition of “Sustainable”, “Green” and “Environmentally Friendly

H&M recently set up its “green” clothing and named it “conscious”. They claim to use 100 percent organic cotton (approximately 20,000 litres of water is required for just one shirt) and recycled polyester. How can this possibly be “sustainable”? Anything that requires that much water is not sustainable. This appears to be just another marketing ploy tricking consumers into the company’s claimed eco-friendliness. How do companies get way with such misrepresentation?

It is worth noting here that there is no legal definition for terminology such as “sustainable”, “green” or “environmentally-friendly.” As a result, companies can get away with such deception, inducing consumers to make a “green” purchase. Until clear legal definitions are created for such terms, companies will continue to evade liability for such deceit and misrepresentation.

Blockchain driving the Supply Chain

Blockchain technology is used by governments and financial services primarily. It is a relatively new and emerging technology with great potential. Its impact extends beyond money – it can also help companies become more transparent. Such transparency will lead the consumer to make better informed decisions based on representations (on the
blockchain) that can, arguably, be trusted, since information cannot be manipulated on the blockchain.

Blockchain is a centralised ledger, a place where information is logged or registered. The most successful application is bitcoin. So, similarly to bitcoin, if one logs or registers all the transactions on a digital cell from the very beginning, nobody can delete or manipulate the information in any way.

Essentially, one mimics what is happening in the real world and it is logged to blockchain. It is not any one authority or State power overseeing the system; this system is a lot more open and transparent in this regard. In respect of supply chain, the best way to envision what blockchain really looks like is to imagine it as a sort of public company profile which discloses all of its information (more detail than on a company website); the type of ethics and value that it is based on, who its employees are, how many employees it employs, whether it uses a solar or wind panel and more.

Blockchain in the Fashion Industry

A consumer is not aware of what goes on behind the scenes in making the product that they have just purchased. How many times has one wondered about where their jeans or sweater were manufactured, by whom were they manufactured and how much did the person who made the jeans or sweater get paid for their labour? This information is not easily available to shoppers, who may approach the local store staff or refer to the company’s website to search for such information. However, even then such information might not be within the staff’s knowledge or on the company website, but if it is, perhaps it should not be taken at face value.

In the fashion sector, blockchain is generally translated into a “QR” (quick response) code for high speed reading or an “NFC tag” (near field communication) which is programmed with any information and then placed into a garment; the latter permitting anyone to access and read them with a smartphone. This code can trace the entire story of a garment, which is really quite extraordinary. Each fleece could possibly be associated with the origin and even the name of the animal that it came from (for instance, mohair wool from the Angora goat), the skills that were used in making it, as well as the very machine used to spin the wool.

So, when it comes to the fashion industry, blockchain has the potential of assisting brands in promoting and guaranteeing an ethical manufacturing process from where the garment came and the very person by whom it was manufactured as well as proving the authenticity and sustainability of the products when it is claimed as such. Essentially, blockchain technology has the potential to guarantee supply chain transparency, secure intellectual
property, and improve the efficiency of data sharing. It can help create a smarter world, where people make better decisions when shopping based on this extraordinary dataset.

Can Blockchain Technology help unmask Greenwashing?

Blockchain demands a new level of co-operation between the consumer and the seller, manufacturer, or the producer, about the meaning of transparency. By placing as much information as possible into a digital cell, consumers will be able to see not only the details about the process involved in the creation of the product, but also the unmasked truth of what is involved in the process behind the scenes, thereby, leaving no room for
greenwashing.

Of course, technology will likely never be able to learn human emotions, but because information (once it is logged onto the blockchain) cannot be tampered with, it will tell the story as it really is (from the moment it was logged). This does, however, raise another issue: what if the information logged was false in the first place? This is something which will probably have to be expected at times because the reality is that there is no way of
preventing this from happening.

If a company does log information falsely and deliberately with the intent to greenwash consumers, the reality is that sooner or later they will be found out. Logically, it will be very difficult for companies to greenwash consumers on the blockchain because as consumerism will demand more verification of the information disclosed, the companies will probably find it more expensive to mask and hide their true practices, than to be honest and transparent.

Concluding Remarks

Many fashion companies have yet to consider applying such QR codes and NFC tags. The disclosure of such information regarding the manufacturing process of the garment is just as important as being able to read the back of a food pack to see what ingredients are added into it. It empowers the shopper to make smarter and more informed decisions.

Blockchain technology has the potential to catch out companies that greenwash their consumers and really educate shoppers about such marketing ploys. Blockchain technology can redefine the fashion industry by encouraging more transparency and cooperation between fashion companies and consumers to not only educate consumers, but also fight climate change together.

This will create a stronger more personal connection with consumers, by giving them a glimpse into the story of the garment; all the persons involved in making it, the names of the animals whose wool or fleece was used, and perhaps even their photograph. Every consumer should have the right to access this information; just as one does with ingredient labelling on the back of a food or beauty product.

Leave a Reply