‘Greenwashing’ is a marketing tactic used to portray an organisation’s products, activities, or policies as environmentally friendly when they’re anything but. With people becoming increasingly aware of many industries’ impact on the planet, some companies are tempted to put a spin on their environmental sins. In a show of ‘all talk, no action’, businesses will spend more time and money on portraying themselves as caring for the planet rather than taking actionable measures to reduce their impact.
These companies employ greenwashing techniques to cover for their environmentally destructive business operations. The practice is prevalent in the fossil fuel industry. For example, it’s no coincidence that one of the biggest oil companies in the world, BP, has chosen the colour green as its primary branding colour and that the logo resembles a flower. These little links to nature reference an eco-friendly model, but most of us can see through the blatant spin.
Greenwashing exists in fashion too, but it may be less glaringly obvious. As conscious consumers, we should recognise that there are no simple solutions to complex problems. So what are the telltale signs? How can you tell when a fashion brand is greenwashing?
1. Impressive-sounding initiatives to reduce carbon emissions at head office
Got some solar panels on the headquarters roof and an office full of plants? That’s great, but it’s not nearly enough. The supply chain should be one of the first things companies address to reduce their carbon footprint, as this is the largest source of carbon emissions. Production accounts for a massive 70% of the fashion industry’s overall carbon footprint. Brands should look at production facilities, transport and shipping methods, and the environmental impacts of source materials.
A brand’s sustainability report should show precisely how it addresses supply chain emissions. Good On You uses these reports to evaluate a brand’s environmental impact and give it a score so you can compare brands and see who is genuinely taking steps to protect the planet.
2. ‘Eco-friendly packaging’ and not much else
Keep an eye out for brands who promote minimal, recycled, or ‘recyclable’ packaging as a sign that they are reducing waste. They may even mention that they recycle their ink cartridges in the office. Again, these gestures alone do not make up for production processes that cause vast amounts of waste and pollution.
The biggest sources of waste in fashion are the textile waste at the production stage and the surplus of clothing being produced. A few years ago, luxury fashion brand Burberry caused outrage by burning £28m worth of unsold clothes and perfume, but many pointed out that it’s a common practice for fashion brands.
Then there are the cheap fast fashion brands that encourage throwaway culture—a business model that can never be truly sustainable. In Australia alone, 6,000 kg of clothing is dumped in landfill every 10 minutes. When brands like these talk about reducing waste without changing their mass production practice, then the greenwashing alarm bells should be ringing.
Also look out for brands who outsource their waste reduction to you, the consumer. Producing clothes that are ‘timeless’ and ‘reject passing trends’ is all well and good, but if the clothes are cheap, mass-produced, and of low quality, they’re no better than trendy fast fashion, because chances are they’re still heading for the scrap heap sooner rather than later.
However, if a brand truly addresses textile waste while also minimising packaging, that’s a win on both fronts!
3. ‘Energy efficiency’ that is just the law
Greenwashing in the fashion industry can come in many shapes and forms. The use of LED and energy-efficient lighting or sensor lights in stores can sometimes be little more than spin. Many office buildings already have this type of lighting. It is even a legal requirement in some countries. If the company itself has not implemented anything new to improve their environmental footprint, they’re just making a big deal about something everyone is required to do.
4. Misleading claims and targets
Targets are a funny thing. Brands are more or less free to set targets for their environmental impact that are comfortable to achieve, sound promising, and may or may not be impactful.
A good way to decipher this is by looking at the fine print. For example, reducing emissions by 50% sounds great until you read that the 50% is pegged to a date in the past when a company was much larger—before they sold off subsidiaries or production facilities. It would be quite easy for them to ‘halve emissions’ without doing much at all. This same trick applies to emissions reductions expressed as a percentage of production volume—yes, you used 15% less energy to produce a single t-shirt. But you’re making ten times as many t-shirts, so your overall emissions have gone up!
Science-based climate targets are the gold standard. If a company is adopting emissions reductions targets related to what scientists say we need to avoid catastrophic climate change, they are doing their bit.
5. Payment of a ‘minimum wage’
Many countries have a ‘minimum wage’, the lowest legal wage a company can pay its workers. This is very different from a ‘living wage‘—the minimum wage a garment worker should earn to feed themselves and their families, pay rent, and cover healthcare, transportation, and education. The majority of garment workers in Bangladesh, for example, earn little more than the minimum wage and far below what is considered a living wage. Companies that shout about ensuring the minimum wage is being paid are doing the very least and don’t deserve a pat on the back.
When you see a brand talk about their labour standards and the living wage, be aware this is a hard factor to regulate. In large production facilities located in countries outside of the brand itself, workers can be overlooked, poorly treated, and their health put at risk.
That’s why full supply chain transparency is essential—ethical brands should list the names and locations of all the factories involved in the production of their products. Better still, brands that operate under fair trade rules ensure that workers are getting a fair deal and a living wage.
6. ‘Sustainable ranges’ in large companies
Feeling tempted to head back to a fast fashion store because they advertise their new ‘organics’ or ‘sustainable’ range? Don’t be fooled! This is an increasingly common marketing tool with high-volume, fast fashion labels.
This range of clothing is often a tiny portion of their overall production, and it doesn’t mean that the brands have made a complete overhaul of their business models overnight. What a brand is really doing here is hoping that the green glow of one initiative will rub off on the company as a whole.
Don’t believe that fast fashion can become ethical from one corner of a massive store. Unless the brand has set clear targets to increase its ethical range to more than 50% of products or is working towards making the whole business ethical—it’s greenwashing.
Also, brands without a diversity of products in their ethical range may not be serious. Organic cotton t-shirts are easy enough to do—but what about looking at wastewater and water use, harmful dyes, labour rights and conditions? Just because it’s organic cotton doesn’t make it green. Look out for things like GOTS certification to know it’s a truly sustainable product.
Put the power back in your hands
Greenwashing is a bit like putting a cherry on top of a cake made of garbage and calling it good, but it’s not all bad news. There’s an ever-increasing number of more dedicated sustainable and ethical brands that want to provide full disclosure on the great ways they are making their products—with no greenwashing necessary!
Our Directory is a great place to read up on the overall impact of a brand, with detailed information from over 500 data points per brand across more than 100 key sustainability issues, indicators, and standards systems. We help to provide the disclosure some brands avoid offering, giving consumers the power to know the impact of the products they are buying. We point out the brands who are constantly greenwashing and misleading consumers, and provide ethical alternatives that are worth supporting.
Author bio: Madeleine is an experienced content writer who specialises in all things personal sustainability, environmental awareness, and minimal consumption. She loves using her writing and research to clearly communicate these key solutions to environmental issues, and endeavours to help people do more in their everyday lives to minimise their footprint on the planet. To do this, Madeleine also manages the online platform Our Simple Gestures, and in her spare time loves being outdoors and enjoying life! Find her at LinkedIn, Instagram and at the website.