Sustainable… but not really: how to avoid greenwashing
Eco-friendly products, green commitments, sustainably sourced, it seems sustainability is the new buzzword of the fashion industry. As eco-consumerism sweeps the globe, knowing when companies’ sustainability claims are less than genuine is vital for understanding how to avoid greenwashing. And this especially in a sector that’s marketing tactics are increasingly becoming a smoke and mirrors show.
What is Greenwashing?
The simple answer is that greenwashing is a clever, if unethical, marketing tactic where a company presents itself as sustainable without actually implementing effective sustainability practices. This is done to cash in on the growing sustainably-minded consumer body.
The concept of greenwashing is nothing new. The term was coined back in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld when he criticised a hotel for placards placed in rooms encouraging towel reuse to help the environment, without applying other robust, sustainable practices. The hotel presented itself as sustainably-minded but implemented no meaningful practices to reduce its environmental impact.
While certainly not unique to the fashion industry, greenwashing has gained a firm presence in the glitzy world of fashion. Everyone from fast-fashion names to high-end labels has come under fire for talking the talk but not walking the walk when it comes to environmentally friendly activities.
As conscious consumerism has grown, so has greenwashing. A recent study found that a staggering 40% of green claims being made online by businesses were vague, misleading, or lacking evidence. With greenwashing practices this prevalent, it can be challenging to know how to avoid greenwashing.
The Lucrative Business of Greenwashing
Green business is quickly becoming a highly profitable practice. As a more environmentally-minded younger generation increases its buying power, the economic value of a sustainable offering is likely to only grow. A recent study found that while only 23% of Baby Boomers were willing to pay a premium for sustainable products, this number jumped to 54% in the Gen Z demographic.
Companies that successfully convince consumers that they operate with ethical and sustainable practices have a much-needed edge in securing market share and charging higher prices. When deciding on a purchase, a study found that close to half of consumers considered sustainability claims. When these claims are untrue or misleading it creates a real impact.
The concept of the smoke and mirrors marketing campaign, aka greenwashing, has moved into other areas of social justice too, from LGBTQ rights to charitable activities. Brands are aligning their marketing and messaging with the views of a more socially conscious consumer body. This helps them appeal to a changing demographic, and capture market share and spending in an emerging consumer market.
The Real Cost of Green Business
Understanding why brands greenwash is vital for understanding how to avoid greenwashing. Implementing legitimate sustainable practices can be costly and time-consuming. It can mean changing production methods, re-evaluating or increasing sustainable investments, or changing core materials.
Producing sustainably made products is often more expensive than unsustainable mass production. Sustainable products are sold at higher prices to maintain profit margins, which can further create a need for businesses to undergo costly re-strategizing.
For the unethical brand, a clever, green marketing campaign that hints at environmental commitments without the actual cost of applying these commitments, can be a gamble that is economically advantageous.
How to Avoid Greenwashing
Now, I know what you are thinking, lying to consumers is illegal right? And while this may be the case, greenwashing can be a slippery business. One of the reasons it is so prevalent across not just fashion, but most sectors, is because it is lucrative, it can be hard to spot and it can exist in grey areas that are hard to prosecute.
While this may give us trust issues on our next shopping spree, there are some key things to look out for to determine whether a brand’s sustainability claims are actually sustainable.
1. Know Who Made Your Clothes
A lack of supply chain transparency is often a warning sign of greenwashing. If consumers don’t know where or how their clothes were made or who made them, it is impossible to know if sustainable and ethical conditions were upheld.
Organisations such as Fashion Revolution have been particularly prominent on the issue of increasing supply chain transparency with the Fashion Transparency Index and the #Who Made My Clothes campaign.
2. Inconsistent Messages
If there are inconsistencies between a company’s messaging and actions, for example advertising charitable giving while not paying workers a living wage, this can be a greenwashing red flag.
3. Do Your Homework
When it comes to figuring out how to avoid greenwashing, doing your homework is the strongest defence. Instead of believing a company’s vague claims or catchy slogan, put in some research.
Sustainable certifications, particularly third-party certifications, are a good place to start. Legitimate third-party certifying bodies such as GOTS, OEKO-TEX, SEDEX or B Corporation have their own checks to ensure a company is doing what it claims to be doing. This helps to reduce the chance of falling victim to greenwashing.
4. Check Ethical Rating Sites
5. Vague Claims
Vague claims are one of the most common greenwashing tactics and are the enemy of truly sustainable fashion. Pretty pictures of natural paradises emblazoned with words like eco-friendly, green, or sustainably sourced look good but mean very little. Words like these are subjective, when not backed up with certified practices, or stringent policies, and almost a sure sign of a greenwashing trap.
6. Unnecessary Claims
Watching out for unnecessary claims is another fantastic way to avoid greenwashing tactics. Claims often involve companies promoting themselves as sustainable for not using products or practices that are already illegal or not commonly used.
A good example is organisations claiming to not use chemicals that are already widely banned. Not using chemicals that are already banned is simply following local legal regulations, not the sign of a sustainable company.
7. Don’t Trust the Celebrities
While seeing our favourite movie star rocking some stylish threads or telling us of a brand’s sustainability prowess, is appealing, it isn’t necessarily true. More often than not celebrities are compensated to advertise a brand and can at times knowingly, or unknowingly, perpetuate a false environmental image. The next time you see your favourite A-lister endorsing a sustainable style, it may be worth double-checking.
8. Look for Consistency
When understanding how to avoid greenwashing, looking for consistency across the brand is a good concept to build on. If sustainable practices only cover one area of production, one product, or one material, then it may not be all that sustainable after all.
Watch out for brands with a “sustainable collection” that over time doesn’t make it to the rest of their collection.
A Dangerous Game for the Fashion Sector
While none of us want to fall victim to greenwashing, the danger of greenwashing goes further than consumer deception. Greenwashing damages steps forward into a sustainable future for the entire fashion sector.
Greenwashing creates mistrust between consumers and the fashion sector, and while some scepticism may be good, this mistrust can be to the detriment of truly sustainable brands. Greenwashing builds an environment in which consumers don’t want to engage with the sustainable fashion sector at all.
Unsustainable companies marketing themselves as sustainable compete with legitimately sustainable fashion organisations. This takes vital market share from brands that are working to improve ethical practices and sustainability efforts in the fashion sector.
When one company engages in greenwashing it sets the entire industry back, and this is one of the worst sins of greenwashing.
A Fashion Industry Turned Green
The unfortunate reality is that as long as sustainable, ethical business is profitable, greenwashing is likely to continue. However, this doesn’t mean that we should give up on sustainable fashion altogether, or that the idea of a green fashion future is a pipe dream.
By understanding how to avoid greenwashing, we can avoid falling into its trap. Consumers can use their purchasing power to reward, support, and grow sustainable fashion brands.
So, next time you want to splash out on some sustainable styles, do some research to make sure your favourite brand walks the walk as well as talks the talk when it comes to sustainability. We can all work towards making sure greenwashing has no place in fashion’s green future.