The Rise of Greenwashing
"While the move towards more sustainable options has been made with positive intentions, corporations have become aware of the financial benefit of this movement".
The importance of environmental issues in the social conscious has become more prominent now than ever. With lasting impacts no longer being able to be ignored, there has been a shift in consumer interest toward sustainable alternatives. According to an article by Client Earth, a Charity focusing on Environmental action and legislation, “66% of consumers are happy to pay more for environmentally friendly products”.
While the move towards more sustainable options has been made with positive intentions, corporations have become aware of the financial benefit of this movement. The rise of exploitative and manipulative marketing methods has become apparent, aptly known as ‘Greenwashing’.
The term, first credited to environmentalist Jay Westeryeld in a 1986 essay, Greenwashing is identified by manipulative marketing tactics and the use of often misleading or withheld information to create the illusion of an environmentally friendly and sustainable company. Client Earth also explains, “A rising tide of greenwashing is distracting the public from the harm these companies are causing and damaging open public debate about climate change”.
While it has been identified in many industries, especially oil and energy, who are attempting to lessen the blow of the significant impact their destructive practices cause. However, one sector where Greenwashing prominently exists is the fashion industry.
The trend of misinformation
"The lack of transparency of a company’s business practices allows them to make claims to bolster public image without accountability".
While fashion is an incredibly lucrative business, contributing £21-billion to the UK economy and up to £2-trillion globally, it is also infamously one of the most polluting industries, second only to oil. According to information gathered by the European Parliament, the fashion and textiles industry produces 10% of the world's carbon emissions and 20% of Clean Water pollution.
It is understandable the shift of attitudes toward cleaner alternatives. Many independent small-scale brands with more ethical and transparent sourcing and production have gained popularity in recent years.
However, all these measures increase the overall cost of the product, reducing the accessibility of the product. Taking advantage of the demand this creates, fast fashion brands utilise the appeal of the environmental consciousness of their audience on a much broader scale and at a much lower price point.
However, due to the very nature of supply and demand, many of the claims put forward are steeped in misinformation. The lack of transparency of a company’s business practices allows them to make claims to bolster its public image without accountability.
Becca Simmons, co-founder of ethical clothing company SAE-RIMA, comments on this issue “Companies are advertising their products as ‘ethically made or 'sustainably produced', but if you do not have the direct link to the proof of this or some sort of percentage to prove this claim, anyone can state that their items are following these rules when in fact they are not.”
An example of greenwashing can be found with H&M, when they launched their Conscious range in late 2019, with the majority of the range supposedly being produced with sustainable and organic materials and a recycling program for worn and unwanted clothing. Despite their efforts, they began to face criticism, with accusations of misleading statistics and the company rebranding as an environmentally friendly company while still operating under a blatantly unsustainable business model.
The Norwegian Consumer Authority condemned the marketing strategies of H&M “We found the information given regarding sustainability was not sufficient, especially given the Conscious Collection is advertised as a collection with environmental benefits.” While the company has reportedly taken measures to improve transparency with their Conscious range, it is still unclear how much has changed to their methods.
This is no isolated incident, many brands utilise popular buzzwords in their marketing campaigns in order to sway favour and appear ‘Greener’. Zara and Nike have also been called into question, with the latter questioned over their ‘Move to zero’ campaign, the company pledging to reduce their carbon emissions by 30% by 2030, despite having no control over 90% of the footprint created in their supply chain.
George Harding-Rolls, a spokesperson for Changing Markets comments on these campaigns full of empty promises, “If fashion brands are serious about reducing their environmental impact, they should stop the charade of downcycling plastic bottles into clothes and instead focus on cutting their addiction to fossil fuels and curbing overproduction.”
Repercussions of awareness
"The importance of awareness of their actions and the ability question the messages of these falsely optimistic values cannot be understated, it is up to the consumer to make the decision of which brands deserve their support".
Disingenuous companies preaching sustainability have understandably left a bitter aftertaste in the mouths of many consumers, because of this, many initiatives and media outlets have been calling out and raising awareness of the problems caused by corporate Greenwashing to positive effect. Raising awareness on the ‘red flags’ that marketing teams use in their campaigns which may not be as true as they seem.
‘Good on You’ is a beneficial resource that researches and rates hundreds of fashion brands and companies and critiques them on their sustainability and business ethics and recommendations for more environmentally conscious companies.
Legislation has also been passed in order to bring a degree of accountability towards the claims put forward with the threat of legal action if they do not comply. In 2021, the CMA put pressure on companies to comply with the law on Green Claims code. Andrea Coscelli states, “We’re concerned that too many businesses are falsely taking credit for being green, while genuinely eco-friendly firms don’t get the recognition they deserve”.
While companies see legal repercussions of their actions, the tedious and consuming process of targeting such large corporations means many cases may never face the full consequence of the law.
The importance of awareness of their actions and the ability to question the messages of these falsely optimistic values cannot be understated, it is up to the consumer to make the decision of which brands deserve their support and the rise of media and organisations shed light on these issues to give them the confidence and information to do so.