the ultimate guide to greenwashing
I recently asked you lovely lot over on Instagram which part of the fashion industry is a mystery to you, and one of the most popular answers was sussing out whether or not a brand is greenwashing.
So to save you from being fooled from the clownery that is fast fashion, in today’s post I’ve put together the ultimate guide to greenwashing: a definition, some tell-tale signs, and the brands who are guilty of it.
In a climate ( ha ha ) of consumerism where 88% of shoppers are more likely to buy from a brand if its values are sustainability-focused, it’s no surprise that so many brands want to kick their eco appeal up a notch. In fact, last year alone the search for ‘sustainable living for beginners’ on Pinterest went up by 265%.
It’s like a big company’s way of gettin’ down with the kids. And by ‘gettin’ down’ I mean gettin’ into their wallets.
what is greenwashing?
At its core, greenwashing is an ironically unethical way of claiming to be ethical; it’s when a company claims to work in a way that’s conscious of our planet and its people when, in reality, it does quite the opposite. The vibe is very ‘we’re sustainable af because we planted a tree once’.
The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined in the ‘80s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld. Back then, there was limited public access to factual information and unlimited access to corporate advertisements - not an ideal combination. This meant companies could make more claims about the environmental and ethical benefits of their brand than Alyssa Edwards can tongue pop.
The OG greenwasher is the hotel industry; it was on an undergraduate research trip to Fiji that Westerveld saw a resort’s questionably eco-conscious beachside note for its guests. In an interview with the Guardian, he recalled:
It basically said that the oceans and reefs are an important resource, and that reusing the towels would reduce ecological damage. They finished by saying something like, ‘Help us to help our environment’.
I don’t think they really cared that much about the coral reefs. They were in the middle of expanding at the time, and were building more bungalows.
A couple of years later, when writing a term paper, Westerveld discussed his thoughts on the hotel’s hollow intentions, concluding that the truth would ‘come out in the greenwash’. With a classmate who worked for a publication with a large New York-based readership, the term soon rose to popularity amongst the media and the public alike.
greenwashing in 2019
Fast forward thirty years, and we’re able to type in the name of any brand at any moment and research every detail of how they work; advertising is no longer our only source of information. Yet, somehow, marketing materials still hold a tremendous influence on us as consumers.
Let’s be honest: if a brand tells you they’re making eco-conscious changes to the way that they work, how often do you question it? With advertisements becoming so prevalent in the world of social media - a place created to allow us to connect with people we trust - companies are placing themselves amongst those we don’t question. Unsurprisingly, we’ve become subconsciously trained not to question them either. An example of this creepy connection they’re trying to form with us is how companies like Boohoo and Missguided tweet as if they’re your mate - whether it’s Love Island memes or that #relatable #FridayFeeling, they’re always trying to chat with us the way we chat with our mates, so that they can build trust with us and tell us that, for example, a £1 bikini is totally ethically feasible.
Now that sustainability is making its way to the headlines, with 73% of millennials willing to pay more for the same product if it’s environmentally conscious, our high street is waking up to the fact that its consumers are starting to give a sh*t about the planet. And in the true spirit of capitalism, they’re selling us the opportunity to care for the planet … or so they say. In reality, they’re selling us the * feeling * that we’re caring about the planet.
how can i tell if a brand is greenwashing?
Here are some tips and tricks to suss out whether or not a fashion brand is being as transparent as a Primark tshirt after one wash …
sneaky word choice
Many brands - particularly on their website’s sustainability page ( if they have one ) - will phrase statements in a way that makes them sound more eco-friendly than they are. For example, Missguided’s ‘Modern Slavery Statement’, which hasn’t been updated since 2017, reads:
Given the nature of our business we are aware there is a real risk that modern slavery could be taking place in our product manufacturing supply chains. We have spent a considerable amount of time and resource trying to ascertain what we can do as a business to minimize or eradicate this risk.
What I’m wondering is: why are they running a business of the ‘nature’ that there is ‘a real lisk that modern slavery could be taking place’? I’m not sure that’s a good place to start. But hey, they’re fixing it my ‘trying’ to ‘minimize or eradicate this risk’. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t call that prioritisation and progress.
timeless pieces built to last a season
A classic trick used by retailers is to claim that they’re creating timeless fashion, when the only thing that lasts long about their garments is their impact on the planet. This can be sussed out pretty easily. In short: a minimalist aesthetic is not enough; the quality of a piece needs to be genuinely built to be worn, washed and loved for years. There’s no point purchasing a classic blazer if it’ll be worn out by next season.
production volumes that don’t match eco goals
A brand can switch to organic cotton to make a bit of a difference, but organic cotton isn’t as helpful a change if, at the end of the day, it’s still being used to produce a billion garments. It’s quality over quantity, and when a brand produces millions of pieces every year, this simply can’t ever be truly sustainable. It’s about purchasing less, and purchasing wisely.
they only mention certain production factories
This is a CLASSIC. If you care as much as me and dive into the million-page pdfs filled with eco claims on a brand’s website, you’ll find some particularly unhelpful information. For example, Boohoo’s ‘Supply Chain Operations’ page states:
We require our suppliers to periodically sign compliance letters acknowledging their adherence to our standards and code of conduct. This document also asks for suppliers to ensure sub-contractors meet these requirements. This is periodically reviewed and updated as and when required and is part of Boohoo group's ongoing commitment to improving its supply chain for both 1st and 2nd tier suppliers.
To translate: the dudes running the factories that Boohoo buys their clothes from sign a piece of paper. They’re also asked to get the dudes who run their factory’s outsourced factories to sign the paper, too. Sometimes Boohoo looks at the piece of paper in the hope there’s no slavery in two parts of the process.
they endorse eco campaigns rather than eco values
This implies they see it as a marketable passing trend, rather than an ethos. Furthermore, having one collection of a billion dollar fashion brand company that uses a thread of organic cotton sometimes does not detract from the millions of harmful garments they produce on the side. If their business’ structure is built on fast fashion culture ( ooh what a lovely rhyme! ) and mass consumption / consumerism, odds are they cannot physically be genuinely sustainable without losing their entire business.
google their name with ‘greenwashing’
You’ll find plenty of articles, posts and insights from unbiased, external sources, which will likely say quite different things to their own ‘Planet and People’ page.
they don’t mention the people who make their clothes
If they literally only ever mention being eco-friendly and never the people who create the garments themselves - a bit like when Zara recently told us they’re making sure the twelve year olds who work eighteen hours per day would use corn for buttons. How mindful. Read more on that in my previous post, Zara Announces They’re Going Sustainable. I’d recommend reading into Fashion Revolution’s Who Made My Clothes? campaign for more information on this factor.
they emphasise an eco-friendly office + store
Wow, I’m so glad Karen in HR is using her Macbook on low brightness to save the planet. And it’s great that the stores stocking millions of garments made in factories where women are fired for being pregnant are using energy-saving bulbs … although low impact lighting is a legal requirement in a lot of places and, therefore, tells us nothing about how much a brand actually cares.
they keep talking about eco packaging but never eco products
I’ve noticed this one a lot more recently. As I’ll dive into later on in the post, Primark recently explained that sustainability is ‘extremely important' to them because ‘the Primark brown paper bags made of recycled paper’. Love to fill my recycled paper bag with clothes whose chemicals are so toxic they’re killing the planet. Love it.
their price tags are more earth-centred than their values
With many conscious collections, the tag on the garment is more eco-friendly than the collection itself. Brands will use certain textures, materials and colours ( earthy green, warm browns, recycled paper ) to trick us into believing that the garment is good for the planet.
no proof of green actions ( gots label, etc ) + check eco label index for whether the stamp is legit
One of the best ways to assess a brand’s impact on the environment is by researching it with external sources and looking for the approval of official associations. Look for signs like a GOTS ( Global Organic Textile Standard ) or Fairtrade label is a good place to start, but it’s important to bear in mind that some companies use dodgy stamps to trick you into thinking they’ve been approved by an organisation that you just happen not to have heard of. If in doubt, head over to the Eco Label Index - the largest global directory of ( say it with me, kids ) eco labels - to find out if it’s a legit stamp or not.
email the company to ask for transparency on vague areas + be wary of their response
You don’t even need to search for their email address - the Fashion Revolution website has a pre-written email and list of brand contacts for you to click through and reach out to your favourite brands in a quick and easy way - find it here. It’s also worth remembering that, the more customers who contact them about this, the more it’ll be brought to their attention that it’s an area they need to focus on.
research more when it says ‘made in x’ because it could be imported previously
We know that many countries have extremely poor minimum living wages and requirements for workers, so I know that it’s pretty common to assume that if a garment says ‘Made in [ a country you know has fair workplace regulations ] ‘ , that the garment was made in safe and regulated conditions. This is a prime example of, as Vivacious would say, LIZA MINELLI … LIES. Leena Oijala sums it up in her piece for Eco Salon:
Through the recent exponential globalization and growth of the fashion industry, the implications of the “Made in” label have become a bit convoluted. Although the apparel factories in countries like India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Korea are often thought of as meccas for terrible working conditions and below poverty level wages, there are several brands working with artisan cooperatives and craftsmen in these countries to produce fairly made goods that improve the local infrastructure.
On the other hand, sweatshops are cropping up in countries like Italy, long known for their quality and impeccable use of materials, complicating the use of a “Made in Italy”, label. Several higher end brands are also producing many of their fashion items in places such as Hong Kong and China at a fraction of the cost of producing them in a European high-end fashion factory, but having them finished or packaged in France or Italy. According to the European Union, this confusingly provides ground for using a “Made in France” label. Transparency is completely invoked in this case, only to falsely protect the reputations of a brand.
check good on you
One of the best ways to figure out whether or not a brand is greenwashing, and where exactly it ranks on the sustainability scale, is by downloading the Good On You app, or by heading over to their website, www.goodonyou.eco.
which brands are guilty of greenwashing?
Fast fashion is innately unsustainable - this is its profit’s selling point. It’s built on throwaway culture, guilting consumers into continuously buying new styles because there’s a thousand new ones available every week ( hi Missguided, how are ya? ) .
Oh, and don’t get me started on the state of the ethical side of their responsibilities ( I’ll save that for a future post ) .
Let’s have a look at the biggest greenwashers at the moment, shall we?
My recent post on Zara’s sustainability announcement sums up what they’re up to when it comes to sustainability efforts, but today I want to talk to you about their JoinLife collection.
One of the most common ways a brand greenwashes is by creating a little collection that uses a bit of organic cotton and recycled paper tags. This tricks us as consumers into believing that we’re helping the planet by picking up clothes from that selection, rather than their other pieces. Of course, an organic cotton shirt is better than a regular cotton shirt, but Zara have set the bar so low when it comes to ethics, that they can pretty much claim any new collection as more eco friendly than the rest.
Let’s dive into their own description of JoinLife:
Bring the clothes you no longer wear and put them in the containers in our stores.
As part of our social and environmental commitment we help you to easily extend the lifespan of your clothes. #joinlife #recycle
Putting some clothes that lasted you a season into a recycling bin in their shop not only forces you to go into the store itself, it sets you up to be distracted by the new pieces lining their shelves. It also encourages you to see clothes as disposable ( even if they’re going to be recycled ) .
Our products meet the most stringent health, safety and environmental sustainability standards.
… according to whom?
Our supply chain respects workers and the environment.
Up to 90% of our stores are now eco‑friendly.
‘Up to’? How do you not even know the exact figure?
Zara.com's servers and offices consume energy derived from renewable sources that respect the environment.
I also asked over on Instagram which high street brands you believe to be the most sustainable and ethical, and someone messaged me saying that Primark are upping their game. From this we can conclude that, if they’ve upped anything, it’s their greenwashing skills.
I’m not trying to impress you or anything, here, but um … I was invited to the opening of the biggest Primark ( which is also the newly crowned ‘largest fashion retail store’ in the world, according to Guinness World Records ) in the world a few months ago. Unfortunately I had to turn down the invitation - somehow I just don’t think I’m the ideal customer for the 161,000 sq ft, £70 million, quintruple-levelled store.
However, I do have some wonderful blogging mates who are big fans of the brand, and they spoke to me afterwards about the brand’s speech on the night to a floor ( or five ) full of media, from large-scale press to independent content creators. One announcement particularly caught my attention - the aforementioned claim that they’re upping their sustainability game.
In an interview with Drapers, the store’s director of new business development, Tim Kelly, said:
Sustainability is extremely important to us. Not only are the Primark brown paper bags made of recycled paper, but 94% of our paper and plastic waste from the store goes back to our depots for recycling. We will not be selling any single-use plastic water bottles in our stores.
We’ve also got a building management system certified to the highest standards, so, from an energy perspective, this store is very lean and efficient.
I’m so glad they’re realising that using paper bags makes up for child labour, and that it doesn’t matter if employees get fired because they’re pregnant, as long as they don’t sell plastic bottles!
One of their biggest announcements is that there’s a new denim range made from sustainable cotton grown with less water, pesticide and fertiliser. Let’s break that down, shall we?
On their own website, they’ve posted a lot of cleverly-worded information about it. A particular highlight which sums up greenwashing perfectly would be:
We don’t currently use Fairtrade materials. We are however working to sustainably produce one of the main fibres used in our clothes – cotton.
Firstly, Fairtrade concerns the wellbeing and fair payment of garment workers and farmers … so the way that Primark produces cotton fibres isn’t wholly relevant but a convenient change of topic; being sustainable and ethical are not the same thing and they’re very aware of that. As mentioned before, using ‘we are working to sustainably produce’ is a subtle way to avoid saying ‘we are sustainably producing’. So, when are we talking? Next week? In twenty years? In what ways are you doing so?
Katharine Steward, Primark’s head of ethical trade and environmental sustainability, said:
We don't want to give the impression that we've got everything right... We're on a gradual journey,’
I hate to break it to you Katharine, but I don’t think you could give that impression if you tried.
Gaby Hindsliff sums up the situation pretty well in her article for The Guardian on the topic:
Shoppers may not always have time to decipher labels, but they want to feel their brands are ethical, and in Birmingham everything from the “People. Respect. Planet.” posters above tills to the branded brown paper carriers seems designed to reassure.
The message is that you can still have fun with fashion, and they will take care of the guilt for you.
One of the biggest brands at the forefront of greenwashing accusations is H&M.
Earlier this year, H&M were publicly criticised by the Norwegian Consumer Authority ( NCA ) for ‘illegally marketing’ their Conscious collection. The NCA claims that the high street giant is promoting its eco-focused line in a deliberately misleading way:
H&M’s portrayal of its collection’s sustainability credentials breaches Norwegian marketing laws and alleges that the brand uses symbols, statements and colour to mislead buyers.
The NCA are saying that H&M isn’t clarifying why exactly their collection is labelled ‘conscious’, and what makes it so. The NCA’s deputy director general, Bente Øverli, spilled the tea:
Our opinion is that H&M are not being clear or specific enough in explaining how the clothes in the Conscious collection and their Conscious shop are more ‘sustainable’ than other products they sell. Since H&M are not giving the consumer precise information about why these clothes are labelled Conscious, we conclude that consumers are being given the impression that these products are more ‘sustainable’ than they actually are’.
H&M agreed to meet with the NCA to make sure they align with the authority’s guidelines in the future - a spokesperson for the fashion brand said:
We are pleased the Norwegian Consumer Authority shines the light on marketing and communication of sustainable alternatives and we have already established a healthy conversation with them to see how we can be even better at communicating the extensive work we do. We are transparent in everything we do and have nothing to hide.
I’ll let you make your own mind up on this one - here’s a video titled ‘Honest H&M Ad’, created by the brilliant Kristen Leo, to help you out …
what can be done about greenwashing?
If there’s one thing these brands are conscious about, it’s fooling their customers. That’s right, I said it.
To be honest with you, I think it should be illegal. These brands know what they’re doing, and there’s a reason that they’ve made sure that their own consumers aren’t aware. It’s not only disrespectful towards the people that fund the running of their company ( us, as their buyers ) but it’s damaging to the lives of the people whose work and homes they’re destroying. In short: it’s not okay, and it’s time they’re held accountable.
over to you
So now I want to hear your thoughts on greenwashing. Have you been fooled by greenwashing in the past? Are there certain brands you’re just not convinced by when it comes to being eco-conscious? Join the chat over on the Discuss page or DM me on Instagram - I’m excited to hear your opinions!