What is the definition of greenwashing?
The meaning of greenwashing is when a company attempts to trick or deceive consumers through deceptive advertising that makes their products appear more eco-friendly, healthy, and sustainable. Greenwashing is also known as “green sheen”.
Many of these companies use phrases like “sustainably produced”, “all-natural”, or “made from recycled materials” and while some of these claims may be partially true many of the companies exaggerate to mislead consumers. to make their products sound more environmentally friendly and less wasteful. The concept is extremely misleading and has been going on for years even as far back as the 1960s.
According to the Encyclopedia of Corporate Social Responsibility, the term originated with prominent environmentalist Jay Westerveld in a 1986 essay in which he claimed the hotel industry falsely promoted the reuse of towels as part of a broader environmental strategy; when, in fact, the act was designed as a cost-saving measure to save money on washing towels. (Orange and Cohen 2010).
Greenwashing is an attempt to capitalize on the growing demand for environmentally sound products.Investopedia
Is greenwashing illegal?
Unfortunately, greenwashing is completely legal
Why do companies greenwash?
Companies greenwash for three reasons, money, money, money!
Greenwashing is an excellent marketing tactic geared towards people that are actually concerned about the environment, which is a lot of people. Most people feel they are purchasing from a company that is doing good in the world and will opt for them than a company that is outright harming the environment.
Companies usually win awards for “going green”, have an increase in sales, and many times are able to increase their prices as most eco-friendly, organic, and all-natural products are more expensive due to stricter regulations. However, since these companies are only claiming to be green but many times don’t go through the rigorous testing of standards for truly green products they are pocketing a large sum of what comes in through the increased prices
How does thrifting help with greenwashing?
According to Ecojungle, the fashion industry is in the top five polluting industries in the world. This is due to the high use of carbon emissions and over 80% of all textiles ending up in landfills, usually in third world countries.
In an interview with Discover Magazine, author and journalist Elizabeth Cline states that “There is way too much clothing being produced, the length of time that consumers are wearing clothes has fallen dramatically, and as a result, there’s a flood of unwanted clothes moving through the secondhand clothing system.”
By thrifting, repurposing, and making secondhand purchases you are helping these textiles not end up in landfills.
Examples of Greenwashing
There are several companies that have been accused of greenwashing, many of the energy companies for example in the mid-1980s, the oil company Chevron put out a series of tv and print ads to market their environmental-friendly practices. It was called ‘People Do’ and the campaign showed their employees protecting animals like bears, sea turtles, and butterflies. As a result of this marketing, they won an Effie advertising award in 1990. Some environmental groups proclaimed them as having the gold standard of greenwashing.
One practical example of greenwashing from Investopedia is: An area rug is labeled “50% more recycled content than before.” The manufacturer increased the recycled content from 2% to 3%. Although technically true, the message conveys the false impression that the rug contains a significant amount of recycled fiber. (There are more on the website)
What clothing companies have been accused of greenwashing
Many of the fast fashion brands that are popular have been accused of greenwashing by making efforts to include sustainable “collections” in their clothing options. However, since they are still contributing greatly to the world of fast fashion it is, unfortunately, an effort that doesn’t make up for the harm continuously done to the environment.
One report found that nearly 60% of fast fashion brands that create these sustainable collections are greenwashing. Many. of these brands are still offenders for the following reason since they often still use clothes made mostly of synthetic fibers in their eco-friendly collections. The development of synthetic fibers still rely on fossil fuels like oil and fracked gas for production. It was noted that “Some brands are making commitments to move away from using virgin polyester, [but] they make no such commitment regarding synthetics in general,” (source).
Many of these companies spend more time and money with gimmicky marketing tactics than they do truly making a positive impact on the environment.
In 2010 ASOS announced that they were developing a sustainable collection, “The Responsible Edit” which gave their shoppers environmentally conscious clothing and accessory options.
The collection uses recycled goods, sustainable fibers, and eco-friendly fabrics which they state will decrease the use of water and energy. While this is nice, in their description of the collection they refer to themselves as ‘the fast-fashion giant’ introducing new recycled products in its product portfolio and no matter how you swing it, fast fashion is just not sustainable.
The website Good On You rates ASOS as ‘not good enough’ in the eco-friendly department.
The brand is noted as making many promises to improve their negative environmental impact but hasn’t followed through as of yet. The company has been known for paying their workers well below the national minimum wage and encouraging employees to work while being sick.
They currently have launched the Boohoo Sustainability Collection which uses recycled materials like polyester and recycled cotton. Their website states that they are working hard to become a more conscious brand.
Forever 21 has been known for a scandal where US Labor Department investigators found that workers at a factory in Los Angeles were paid as little as $6 per hour.
Forever 21 states they are doing things like using 100% recyclable and reusable plastic and paper bags in many of its stores, currently developing apparel collections using environmentally friendly materials, and recycling shipment boxes. You can read more about what they are doing to help positively impact the environment here on their social responsibility page.
H&M has been a brand that is attempting to position itself as a brand that is eco-conscious. Similar to Asos, in 2020 they stated that they were coming out with the Conscious Exclusive Collection which would be the first-ever collection to feature Circulose.
Circulose is a cellulose pulp obtained by recovering natural fibers that are present in used clothes and unsold garments. Cellulose pulp is used in the textile industry to make viscose, lyocell, modal, acetate, and other types of man-made cellulose fabrics. (reference). I was never a big H&M fan but did try out the collection, it was nice but unless they continue to move away from fast fashion I doubt I will shop there often.
Shockingly it was found that H&M’s Conscious Collection was found to contain a higher proportion of synthetic fibers (72%) than its fast-fashion line (61%). (source).
They also have in-store recycle bins where customers can drop off old clothes and get a couple to use the next time they shop. You can read more about what the company is doing in the name of sustainability here.
The steps that the company is taking to show their beneficial impact on the environment is a step in the right direction, no one can argue that, but is it enough? To be truly green would take a lot of time and sacrifices and would certainly include the elimination of producing fast fashion items.
While Victoria’s Secret doesn’t seem to do much to reduce its environmental footprint since they still use unsustainable materials to make their clothing they did sign the Greenpeace “Detox my Fashion” campaign in 2020. The point was to eliminate all hazardous chemicals from their products.
Zarra also launches eco-friendly collections using recycled materials. The company has recently publicized a list of environmental commitments which include increased water conservation, banning harmful chemicals in production, and reduction of waste in landfills. They have given a timeline of five years to reach these goals. (source). However, they currently rate 50% for environmental sustainability. You can read more about their efforts here.
We are on a war on combating greenwashing,Normative CEO and co-founder Kristian Ronn told CNBC
How to spot a company that greenwash
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) gives several examples of greenwashing on its Green Guide which details the practices by many of companies guilty of greenwashing.
Is it spelled out?
Companies that greenwash are usually vague about their ‘green’ practices. Most companies that are not greenwashing are more than happy to give you as many details as possible about their practices. They will tell you exactly what makes the product green (the packaging, product, or both), and what in it is green in plain layman’s terms.
Look for seals
Seals like the Green Seal or Non-GMO certification are critical when seeking out sustainable products. These are highly regulated and inspected vigorously to be deemed green.
Read the packaging
Don’t just pay attention to what a product looks like, just because it looks ‘clean’ or ‘green’ where packaging is concerned does not mean that it truly is environmentally beneficial. Many companies know that branding is everything and will use colors like greens, white, and browns to indicate they are eco-friendly when in fact they are greenwashing.
Know your terms
Any company can use the term ‘natural in their products so it does little to show that they are truly green. Get to know the various terms that companies use to make it seem like they are more eco-friendly than they truly are. To read more visit the USDA’s website.
Is the packaging sustainable? Most eco-friendly companies will also use eco-friendly packaging including recycled materials and they will limit the amount of packaging used.
How does greenwashing differ from whitewashing?
Whitewashing is the covering up of scandalous information through lies and deceptive practices while greenwashing is more deceptive about their marketing tactics to their patrons.
Read here for the seven sins of greenwashing.
green marketing VS greenwashing
Green marketing is the transparent and honest marketing of products by stating that they are truly green and what makes them green. These are legitimate claims that may include:
- Not including toxic substances
- Made from renewable and recycled materials
- Items that can be recycled
- They are manufactured ethically