Greenwashing encompasses misleading environmental marketing, misdirection, and the prioritisation of profit over sustainability among fashion, cosmetics, and beauty brands.
Greenwashing is not new. The term was coined in the mid-80s by student Jay Westerveld who was on holiday in Hawaii. He was confused by a local hotel’s claim that if guests were to refrain from washing their towels every day, it would help protect the local reefs. In his mind, there were other more pressing concerns impacting local reefs, such as increased tourism, and this same hotel was building more rooms, encouraging tourism which would affect the reefs. He dubbed this “greenwashing”.
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is similar to whitewashing, which means to gloss over, distract from or cover up a fact. Greenwashing may occur when brands purposely or unknowingly mislead consumers with environmental claims to take attention away from a company’s actions or business model that might be impacting the environment in a negative way.
Greenwashing can happen unwittingly when a company gets carried away with its own claims. An example of this is when “green marketing” inspires a company’s marketing department to overlook the truth and focus only on the good, ignoring the glaring problems.
Using terms that are vague is a green marketing tool that can also turn into greenwashing. Terms like “eco-friendly”, “clean”, “natural”, and “conscious” are great examples of marketing terms that have no specific definition or tangible measurements.
Greenwashing in the Fashion Industry
Greenwashing is not exclusive to the fashion industry, but heavy criticism has been aimed at fashion brands, especially fast fashion brands. These mass-market brands run on a business model based on creating catwalk copies at a rapid pace. Often, these products are low-quality and intended to only last for a short period before being discarded.
Critics have pointed out that these firms have hundreds of products that impact the environment whilst creating a small collection which they promote as sustainable.
So why are misleading environmental claims so alluring to many fashion companies? Well, we all know maintaining the environment is important. Since the 1980s, environmentalists have been drawing attention to mankind’s impact on the planet, from CFOs, the ozone, deforestation, and water shortages to the increase in global temperature and melting ice caps.
Greenwashing is tempting because it reflects the consumers’ interest in sustainability. As the baby boomer generation ages, millennials, who tend to care more about the environment, will become the future core customers. As far back as 2015, a Nielsen study revealed that 73% of millennials were willing to pay more for sustainable goods. Clearly, fashion brands stand to gain by winning over millennials.
According to a Mckinsey study, “Fashion’s New Must Have: Sustainable Sourcing At Scale”, online searches for “sustainable fashion” tripled between 2016 and 2019. Fast forward to a post-pandemic world in 2020, the global lens has focused more on excess, consumerism, and humanity’s impact on the environment. Greenwashing is alluring because it sends all the right messages to a consumer who is increasingly savvy and difficult to win over.
Companies latch onto greenwashing because it sets up a facade that is flashy, marketable, and on-trend.
How do we Spot Greenwashing?
The most obvious example is when companies assert claims that cannot be substantiated. These aren’t just vague promises, but are promises that cannot be delivered. A good example of such claims relates to compostable straws and biodegradable plastics – cases have come to light, thanks to netizens, on how unscrupulous suppliers made false sustainability claims on their packaging to charge higher prices.
There are also a few classic marketing tactics and half-truths being employed by brands across the board. These include using nature imagery to disguise actual ingredients used in products; using vague language, such as “earth-friendly”, which is ambiguous and open to interpretation; or spewing unwarranted terms such as “organic” or “natural” willy-nilly. Similarly, self-bestowed titles such as “best in class” are often unverified by a third party.
Using data without further explanation is another greenwashing technique. In their 2018 Sustainable Report, H&M Group stated that 57% of its materials were all recycled or sustainable. The Norwegian Consumer Authority subsequently asked H&M to clarify what it considers to be sustainable, since by law, companies should not be providing misleading information to customers.
Green Campaigns Leading to Greenwashing
Brands with substantial marketing budgets may create such successful greenwashing campaigns that their messages get lodged in the consumers’ mind, requiring a rather beady eye to discern the duplicity.
Critics have highlighted H&M’s use of celebrity endorsement and green carpet events to promote its “Conscious Collection” as an example of greenwashing. Seeing celebrities affiliated with H&M’s sustainable collection making front-page news raises the company’s sustainable profile while diverting attention away from the brand’s non-sustainable collections.
On the CottonOn Group’s website, the company seems to assert a strong commitment to sustainability: “Believing that big change starts with us, we are on a continuous journey of improvement to reduce our impact on the environment.” However, their business model – producing affordable, but low-quality clothes – is founded on encouraging consumerism and does not promote longevity.
What Can Consumers Do?
Consumers need to be responsible and actively seek out information to substantiate any claims. But first, we need to understand how the fashion industry impacts the environment. Creating fashion products requires precious water and land which could otherwise be used for local consumption. In the process of growing and harvesting crops or producing fibres, toxic chemicals may also leak into the soil and local water system. Death cases caused by pesticide poisoning were buried for the longest time from the fashion industry. In 2017, BBC revealed that 50 farmers in the state of Maharashtra had died from suspected pesticide poisoning and an additional 800 had been hospitalised.
Second, the fashion industry currently encourages consumers to buy, wear, and dispose of items rapidly, based on seasonal trends, rather than utility. According to Close The Loop, petroleum-based materials such as polyester can take up to 200 years to decompose and may pollute the ground or air if incinerated. Transporting goods across the globe also leads to additional emissions, further contributing to the fashion industry’s environmental impact.
Third, certain players in the fashion industry are known for employing unfair labour practices – from underpaying farm labourers to compelling those producing garments in factories to work long hours, cutting costs to provide consumers with a cheap price point.
Once you’ve understood the pitfalls of the fashion industry, you should, above all else, read the label. For cosmetics and skincare, you may want to pay attention to the small print. You can use apps like Think Dirty which allow you to scan popular household, personal care, and beauty products and get a rating on the potential toxins in the ingredients.
When it comes to clothing, look for the garment label. It should contain fabric content and the country of origin, which in many countries is required by law. If the swing ticket says organic, check for certification. The best internationally recognised certification for organic cotton is GOTS, whilst B Corp looks at the company as a whole. Most people are cautious with food – for instance, we know something labelled “butter alternative” is not butter, or “orange drink” is not orange juice. We should apply the same mentality to fashion by being wary of misleading marketing terms.
Differentiating Sustainable Brands & Greenwashing
The alternative to greenwashing is green marketing which, by definition, is transparent. Sustainable brands often clearly state how they meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals, making it easier for consumers to make impactful choices. These are interlinked goals set out by the UN to delineate the problem and provide metrics to measure the impact of global sustainable initiatives. A company using green marketing is honest about their practices, admits to areas they need to work on, and tend to write their descriptions more carefully.
Sustainable brands also strive to use natural materials or ones that can be reused, repurposed or recycled, avoiding toxic chemicals and single-use plastic. These firms will also aim to reduce their carbon footprint as much as they can, whether it’s through sourcing locally, using materials that would have been thrown away, or by using renewable material and energy where possible. Sustainable brands also create products that are reparable and have a long shelf life, steering clear from any wasteful practices. The best method to check if a company is truly sustainable is to look for certification from either B-Corp or GOTS.