Photo by Egor Vikhrev on Unsplash

Let’s start this article on an indisputable basis: for a brand, whether fashion brand or food brand or in any other industry, being conscious or eco-friendly or sustainable, requires fundamental alterations across business culture, production and processing, the selection (and continuous control) of suppliers, and also presupposes higher production and distribution costs as well as labor costs. Needless to say that this change does not happen overnight but requires study, time and real commitment to the philosophy and culture of the business.

With that basis in place, we can now elaborate on a concept that is now more urgent than ever: Greenwashing*. In short, Greenwashing is the practice of using sensitive terms such as sustainable, eco-friendly, conscious, vegan, etc. in a misleading way. Essentially, it concerns a communication trick used by companies in all industries – but mainly by the fashion industry – to “wash away” their not at all eco-friendly and conscious practices. Greenwashing expands into many stages of the production and distribution of goods and disguises itself in many statements, campaigns and collections. But what it certainly does not represent is truth and transparency. Another characteristic of Greenwashing is the use of very generic terms and the lack of substantial and meaningful information over the actual tactics followed to achieve the “green” goal.

It is truly shocking that ICPEN (International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network) in a recent review of websites by major brands found at least 40% of environmental claims potentially misleading to consumers. In the United Kingdom, the CMA (Competition and Market Authority) states that more than half of consumers take these claims seriously when purchasing. And that’s exactly what fashion companies want to achieve through Greenwashing: to make us feel good when we buy their products. As consumers are increasingly getting more and more sensitive to ethics, sustainability, the environment and animals, companies are advertising this aspect of their products so that they alleviate any guilt when we buy from them. But, eventually, do we feel guilty?

An additional fact that has led to the tremendous spread of the Greenwashing phenomenon is the lack of a legal framework around the use of these concepts. What does a “green” product mean? How is it legally documented so that there can be sanctions on anyone who uses the relevant terminology in a misleading way?

If we combine this with the absence of public knowledge on producing and processing raw materials, fabrics and garments, that is the production and processing stages until the product is placed on a store self, it becomes easier for Greenwashing to overwhelm the market.

So, is there anything that we, as consumers, can do about it? How can we tell when a brand is Greenwashing? How can we ensure we are not victims to misleading advertising and we do not accomplice to victimizing the environment even more?

There is a way indeed, which, although requires a little more time and effort, will help us identify problematic allegations and, ultimately, malicious practices by fashion brands.

A few simple steps:

1. Let’s go beyond that “conscious” tag (or any other fancy word). Look for more information that can substantiate such claims, either on that same tag or the brand’s website. A brand with solid “green” culture has already gone the extra mile to create a relevant section describing its “green” strategy before even launching the collection and its huge promotional campaign

2. Therefore, a truly conscious brand will also offer resources and specific information over its supply chain (even names and details for their suppliers), production and processing practices but also its policy about human resources. It will not be afraid to provide specific numbers too…

3. A fast-fashion brand that releases a limited conscious collection, is definitely not conscious! It is not possible to apply environmentally friendly practices and non-environmentally friendly practices at the same time…

4. Always look for relevant certifications, although, due to cost factors, there is a possibility a brand is conscious but has not yet managed to get the certification for financial reasons only

5. Claiming to be “natural” does not necessarily means eco-friendly too. For example, and as we have described in previous articles, cotton needs huge volumes of water and, if we are looking into non-organic cotton, huge amounts of pesticides too. The same goes for cruelty-free products; there is always the dark side of those claims especially when the brand does not provide specific information to back this claim. And if we trust that we have a cruelty-free product, what’s the point when its production demands great volumes of non-renewable resources or its raw materials have already massively polluted the aquifer or, even, forced labor, child labor, etc. have been involved?

6. We must pay attention to the overall culture of a brand. What good is a “conscious” brand that releases its products in recycled or recyclable packaging when it does not care about the litter or the microplastic pollution that its actual products cause?

Greenwashing is a vital phenomenon and, fortunately, in many countries around the world there are now specialized agencies that investigate, verify the allegations of companies – even giant brands – and impose fines and legal sanctions.

But the power is always in the consumer’s hands; we do make a difference with our choices. Through the purchasing decisions we make, we can raise a huge STOP to immoral and misleading practices.

*The term Greenwashing was introduced officially in 1986 by the environmentalist Jay Westervelt, while it had been around from as early as 1960!

Certifications / Organizations / Tools—CMA-urges-UK-businesses-to-avoid-greenwashing/

Examples of Greenwashing Companies / Audit Results & Reports–60–of-sustainability-claims-by-fashion-giants-are-greenwashing/

Articles from the international press