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What Is Greenwashing?

May 06 2020 – Gergana Damyanova

What Is Greenwashing?
What Is Greenwashing?

Have you ever heard of greenwashing? Even if you haven't, you have definitely experienced it. Many, many times. Probably every single day! So let's dive in and understand this recent phenomenon.

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is making misleading environmental claims to present products as more sustainable and eco-friendly than they actually are. It's playing tricks with the consumer perception. The sole objective of this exercise is to trick environmentally-conscious customers in making a purchase of a "green product". Fashion companies have received the message loud and clear - customers want more eco-friendly products, they want products made in safe working conditions where workers get paid fairly.

That's actually the beauty of the fashion industry - it's extremely customer-centric and extremely competitive. That's why brands are willing to do everything their customers ask for. However, if the customers are not careful, it might only seem that they are getting what they asked for - like in the case of greenwashing.

Greenwashing instructions picture from blonde gone rogue's article on greenwashing.

False green claims are done in different ways. Brands can heavily exaggerate their environmental efforts and results. They use misleading words - conscious, green, natural, organic. Very often, none of these terms actually mean better for the environment. Small efforts that don't help with pollution and climate change are broadcasted as the next breakthrough in sustainable practices. For instance, dresses with 20% organic cotton or recycled content in the fabric. Does that make a dress sustainable? Sounds like a big claim. But I am sure that a dress made from 100% recycled content is sustainable. Similar trend is happening with imagery. Models are all of a sudden dragged to gardens, forests and jungles to create the false feeling of sustainability and care for nature. Let's face it, no one would ever garden in the below outfits.

Example of H&M greenwashing's activities.

How is greenwashing worse than regular marketing?

Brands have been falsely selling us love, happiness, eternal youth and who knows what else ever since advertising emerged! Happiness doesn't jump out of the Coca-Cola bottle, my eye lashes never look like Eva Longoria's in the Maybelline ad and I know, no creme will ever visibly remove 90% of my wrinkles. But we have been okay with brands saying these things for decades.

However, green marketing is so much worse. The unsubstantiated claims made by companies engaging in it are playing with our dear values of living more conscious lives and having a less negative impact on the environment around us. And not only are brands getting away with overproduction, misleading and exaggerated environmental benefits and treating workers unfairly - they are making more money due to their false environmental claims!

The very tricky part about environmental marketing is that it is very difficult for consumers to verify claims made by brands. I know when Coca-Cola doesn't make me happy or when that face creme is not giving me the advertised results. However, what is required to verify a brand's sustainability and ethical claims is transparency and in-depth knowledge of how and where products are made. And while now almost every brand has flashy corporate social responsibility page on their website, making bold statements about sustainability and ethics, very few actually present any evidence to back these claims.

example of greenwashing

What can customers do to avoid greenwashing?

This is a difficult question. In a situation where we can't trust what brands are saying, there's no regulation by governments and third party organisations have very fluid definitions, it's hard to quickly decide whether we should purchase from a brandIn 2020, Fashion Revolution named H&M the #1 transparent brand. But does transparency mean sustainability? I don't think so. How about all the small brands that are going above & beyond to be sustainable and transparent? They are often forgotten from rankings focusing on the big conglomerates.

Here are our thoughts on what everyone of us can do, without losing too much time, to make sure we buy and behave more sustainably when it comes to our clothes. And hence, not become victims of greenwashing marketing campaigns.

Be critical. Always.

Trust your own common sense and not marketing campaigns with a lot of buzz words. Natural doesn't mean sustainable; vegan doesn't mean good for the environment. What more do you know about the material? How transparent is the brand? Do they seem that they are pushing sustainability too hard but there's not enough depth and detail available? There are a few common traps we can easily avoid and Vogue has put a nice guide in their article 6 Ways To Be Greenwashing Vigilant.

Inform yourself. Be curious.

It is relatively easy to visit a few fashion sustainability blogs one afternoon and quickly get a more in-depth look at which materials are sustainable, what practices are better and in which countries we can count on ethical production due to local laws and regulations. It is relatively easy to follow a few respectable Instagram or Twitter profiles that will on a regular basis give you bits of important information when it comes to sustainability in fashion. After all, it's easy to get information nowadays.

two girls in dresses in nature

Buy small, buy local.

Smaller and local independent designers are much more likely to have sustainable and ethical operations, to be open to give you the details of what they do and the proof that they are actually walking the talk. They are usually much easier to approach. In this way, you not only support business near you but actually ensure you are not getting greenwashed by a big marketing campaign. Great place to discover such brands are independent and sustainable marketplaces like Wolf & Badger and Wearth.

Buy less and buy better.

This is one of the most sustainable thing each of us can do. Reducing the demand for fashion and the constant cycle of new production and quick disposal will inevitably help the environment. But to buy less, we also need to buy better. Fast fashion often gives us clothes that last just a season, guaranteeing we will go running for a new £4 tee in a couple of months. To break this cycle, we need to invest in high-quality, durable clothes. It's hard to be greenwashed when we are not looking to buy. 

For more on how to be better at shopping sustainable, visit our Guide To Sustainable Fashion.

Any thoughts? We'd love to hear them in the comments section!


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