Time for an Environmental Studies class. This time, we learn about the real deal. No, this isn’t about Sustainability, but its rather evil sister : Greenwashing.
Now what is green-washing, you may ask?
Greenwashing is the “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image." Or simply, “Greenwashing is the use of mislead marketing to portray an organization’s products or activities as environmentally friendly when they are not."
In context with the fashion industry, it’s a practice within many fast-fashion brands where their clothing is cleverly marketed to be sustainable in order to fuel more consumption & spending by customers. "Eco-friendly," "organic," "natural" and "green" are just some examples of the widely used labels that can be confusing and misleading to consumers. If you're ready to slap some grass on your logo, be transparent with customers about your company's practices (and have information readily available to back it up).
Sustainability, practiced in any form, needs a sense of purpose, a clear understanding and urgency from within to be able to work towards cleaning up this mess we created. Sadly, most brands “working towards sustainability & ethics” are only doing so out of pressure, fear and their customer’s growing curiosity for transparency. Without a shift in values coming from the brands themselves, their efforts simply as a means to appease consumers, lack integrity. And it is this lack of integrity that leads to green-washing. Danger.
A few examples would be H&M’s “conscious collection” which didn’t need for an expert to point out that it really wasn’t. Even so, many fell for it, thus coming out of the store with an innate feeling of having reduced carbon impact by buying the same. Zara’s target to make their brand sustainable by 2025 seems hollow and brands like Boohoo could really stop beating around the bush and really make an effort.
Now, how do you really know who’s telling the truth? Well, you may have to dig deeper yourself. Apps like Good On You help in identifying truly sustainable brands by putting them up on a sustainability meter based on their production, ethical practices and the people they employ. This might not be the holy-grail, but surely it’s a start.
Futerra's 2015 Selling Sustainability Report offers 10 basic rules for avoiding greenwashing.
- Fluffy language: Words or terms with no clear meaning (e.g., "eco-friendly")
- Green products vs. dirty company: Efficient light bulbs made in a factory that pollutes rivers
- Suggestive pictures: Images that indicate an (unjustified) green impression (e.g., flowers blooming from exhaust pipes)
- Irrelevant claims: Emphasizing one tiny green attribute when everything else is un-green
- Best in class: Declaring you are slightly greener than the rest, even if the rest are pretty terrible
- Just not credible: "Eco-friendly" cigarettes, anyone? "Greening" a dangerous product doesn't make it safe.
- Gobbledygook: Jargon and information that only a scientist could check or understand
- Imaginary friends: A label that looks like a third-party endorsement … except it's made up
- No proof: It could be right, but where's the evidence?
- Outright lying: Totally fabricated claims or data
It will be difficult enough for the industry (producing at current rates) to make the shift towards current sustainability goals; attempting to meet these goals while also achieving growth is tricky.
However, just because brands aren’t perfect, doesn’t mean they’re not genuinely trying or that we should boycott them entirely. For example, Reformation currently pays 22 percent of their workers a living wage. That’s not good enough, but their openness about it – and clear action to get to 100 percent – is refreshing and should be supported. Ultimately, it is our responsibility as consumers to engage critically with the brands we buy from. But in order to do this, we need to be presented with all the information. This means transparency, but it also means being able to trust that brands are led by human beings who share our own interests—a healthy, vibrant, habitable planet; thriving, economically stable communities; industry that does good by people and the planet.