Choosing to be environmentally aware and wanting to wear sustainable clothing is admirable. However, you can only make ethical choices if the information that you receive is reliable. And this is where the scourge of greenwashing muddies the waters.
Our collective shift of focus towards safe-guarding the future of our planet is having a huge effect on companies across all types of business. Not least fashion.
Many of us are turning away from fast fashion with its reliance on cheap fabrics, polluting production practices and disregard for workers safety or the health of our fragile environment.
Slow fashion is in, conscious consumerism is championed and green is the new black.
But how do you know that the skirt you just paid a premium price for has the ethical credentials that you are hoping for?
Well, you check the labels and do your research on the manufacturer. Then you can make an informed decision. Right?
Sadly, not always. The development of greenwashing means that those eco-friendly principles that you are trying to support may all be a pack of marketing lies.
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing occurs when a company claims to be following sustainable practices and markets itself as eco-friendly, but these claims are false.
Not surprisingly, as concern for environmental issues has grown, companies have realised that promoting their products as part of the potential solution to the damage being done to our planet, rather than contributing to the problem, is a great marketing tool.
Research by McKinsey into the shopping habits of Gen Z (those born between 1996 and 2010) shows that they prefer to support brands that are ethical and follow sustainable practices. For many companies, this results in a simple equation. A strong environmental profile = strong profit margins. So looking like they have adopted an eco-friendly stance is vital, even if they haven’t.
The term ‘greenwashing’ is accredited to Jay Westerveld, an environmentalist, in 1986. It came from his observation that hotels had begun to ask guests to use their towels multiple times rather than sending them to be cleaned after every shower. The hotels were quick to claim that this was an environmentally aware initiative – an attempt to save water. A skeptical Westerveld noted that these same hotels appeared to be doing nothing more to stem their over-blown consumption of water, power or anything else.
His damning conclusion was that the idea was actually to save the hotels on their laundry bills whilst looking like environmental warriors – not to save the planet.
And this is the key to the greenwashing meaning. It’s marketing to put a positive eco-friendly spin on something.
PR companies and marketing departments are highly tuned to what consumers want to hear. They have realised that people are more likely to buy a scarf if they think it was woven from organic cotton by a womens’ collective in Bangladesh – and if part of the profits from it go back to those women – than it being full of toxins and mass-produced in a sweat shop.
Examples of Greenwashing
Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of greenwashing, both from small companies through to huge multinationals.
How often do you turn on the television to see an advertisement showing nature in all its glory? Perfect rolling hills give way to wild, starkly beautiful mountains and these morph into jagged cliffs, being battered by clear, blue waves. You are transfixed by the beauty of these glorious, untouched landscapes. And what is the ad for? An oil company, of course.
Oil and gas companies have been particularly quick to grab hold of the rebranding opportunities that greenwashing has offered.
The fossil fuel industries are amongst the biggest polluters globally, yet they spend millions each year trying to convince us that the future of Earth is safe in their hands.
Yes, many oil companies are diversifying into renewable energy, but most are hardly the protectors of pristine oceans, virgin forests and delicate ecosystems that their PR engines would have us believe.
Another glaring example of greenwashing can be found in the bottled water industry. Brands from Mount Franklin (part of the Coca-Cola behemoth) here in Australia to Evian in France constantly try to assure us of their purity and closeness to nature. Just look at their packaging – mountains and waterfalls. And yet we all know about the terrible legacy that millions upon millions of single use plastic drink bottles have left in our landfills. Oh the irony.
Again, these businesses are keen to herald their attempts at recycling. It’s telling that a quick check on websites of 5 well-known brands of bottled water show Home Pages crammed with images of shimmering snowfields and verdant meadows, along with information on how they are practising ‘responsible business’ and on their ‘sustainability actions’.
And please don’t assume that the fashion industry is above all this purely because the 2 examples we’ve chosen don’t feature clothing manufacturers. H&M (see the link below for more details) and Shein have both been called out recently for greenwashing and they are definitely not the only guilty parties in the world of fashion.
How to Recognise Greenwashing
Knowing that greenwashing exists is one thing, spotting it and not falling for it can be quite another.
One of the most important things you can do when buying things is to ask questions – of yourself and the product.
Greenwashing is all about convincing a consumer that something is better (in terms of it’s eco-friendly standing) that it really is. This means that marketing divisions often go overboard on buzzwords and over-the-top phrases. So take hyperbole with a pinch of salt. Simple, easy to to understand language is often the most honest.
Similarly, don’t believe wild claims that a corporation may make to have saved hectares of rainforest by making one small product line from recycled materials. In general, token changes like this result in very small gains for the rainforest and its inhabitants.
Always read labels and packets carefully and do your own research. Many companies have been called out for their greenwashing tactics by consumers who have taken the time to check some of their claims online. We live in an age where information is everywhere – we just need to know how to access it.
Use reputable sources which provide checkable facts to back up what they are saying. Don’t blindly take the word of a company’s promotional brochure. And cross check wherever possible.
Greenwashing – the Ultimate call-out
Lastly, let me leave you with a satirical clip from the British comedian and social commentator Joe Lycett, lampooning the greenwashing of the Shell oil and gas company.
The advert that he produced below is the finale of a documentary that Lycett hosted on the British free-to-air Channel 4. In the programme, he investigated Royal Dutch Shell’s advert where it promoted its plan to be carbon neutral by 2050. You can read more about the doco here.
Warning: This clip contains images that some people may find offensive and/or disturbing: