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  • Abi Terry

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a major problem in the fashion industry and is also an issue when it comes to legitimate sustainability. The definition of greenwashing is the “process of using misleading or false information about a company’s operations and/or products to deceive customers and members of the public about their environmental impact.” To fully understand what this is you have to consider the positive and negative impacts clothing has on the planet and if a brand is putting into practice what they say they are.

To begin we need to understand the history of greenwashing and how it came about. Greenwashing has been around since the 1960s and was first driven by the nuclear power industry. The term was later coined by Jay Westerveld in 1986 in context of the hotel industry, where he encouraged customers to ‘save the environment’ by reusing their towels. However, it was actually to help lower the hotel’s laundry costs. Misleading environmental claims have become regular in corporate practices and the list of companies that do this is long.

It has now been implemented in the fashion industry as a way of ‘instasizing’ consumers. This has become more apparent recently as sustainability has become more important and trend worthy in the last few years. This rise to protect our planet has meant a lot of companies have begun greenwashing their consumers to ensure that people keep buying with them, but in reality they still aren’t doing anything good for the planet. According to Sustainability Jungle in 2022, 95% of surveyed consumers ranked sustainability as an important consideration. 84% purchased ‘sustainable’ products in the past six months. Green purchasing intention has risen, and consumers are even beginning to be willing to pay more for green products too. Therefore, this has led to greenwashing brands being able to retain their ‘environmentally conscious consumers’ by increasing their prices and saying it's ‘sustainable’ without actually minimising their environmentally damaging processes.

The impact greenwashing has on the environment is detrimental. Greenwashing claims lead consumers to contribute unintentionally to higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions, chemical use, polluted wastewater and high levels of waste. This means these companies are directly contributing to extinction, pollution, and habitat loss.

Greenwashing has also caused social problems related to consumers as well. This is largely because consumer trust is rapidly declining across the globe. The more consumers are learning about these different terms and how to look out for things such as greenwashing, the more lack of trust is built. This can be detrimental to brands because consumer trust and brand relationship is so important. If a brand is found out to be greenwashing, this can damage a business because dishonesty isn’t a good look.

To combat greenwashing as an individual you need to be able to notice the signs and different types of greenwashing. There are three major types of greenwashing and these are:

- Misleading labels and language: unsubstantiated claims like ‘eco-friendly’, ‘green’ or ‘non-toxic’ are not regulated claims so it can mean whatever the company wants them to mean.

- Environmental imagery: green and blue colour schemes and lots of natural imagery mean consumers associate it with sustainability but in reality it doesn’t communicate true environmental facts about the product or brand.

- Hidden Tradeoffs: green advertisements and sustainable practices that don’t come close to compensating for the environmental impact of the product or company.

So, how do you spot these areas of greenwashing? For example, hidden trade-offs may define something as ‘green’ by underestimating/ ignoring the environmental impacts. Or no proof of their green claims or the need for verification by a reliable third-party certification. A common one is the statement ‘Vegan Approved’ instead of official certification like PETA-certified vegan or certified by

Some examples of the big named brands that do a lot of greenwashing are Amazon, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Ikea and Apple. In the fashion industry these include many high street stores such as; H&M, Zara, New Look and many supermarkets.

The biggest question is, how do you avoid greenwashing? The biggest thing is to know how to spot it. It is about being savvy and sneaky when it comes to falsified emissions testing and suspect carbon offset providers and being able to spot fake ‘certified’ labels and marketing slogans that sound legit. In the UK there is a Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) that created the Green Claims Code. This not only helps the consumer but also is a guideline to help businesses to avoid marketing false or unsubstantiated claims. In terms of the consumer spotting, for greenwashing you will have to take more than a quick glimpse of the brand; it will involve reading more into the ingredients and applying a lot of scepticism. An easy way to do this is to get to know the logos of the third-party sustainability certifications. These work best when working in conjunction with the transparency of the brand and your own fact checking.

Certifications include:

- USDA Organic

- Global Organic Textile Standard

- OEKO-TEX 100

- Carbon Trust Standard

- B-Corp

Knowing these means that another party has done the background checks for you, and then you just need to look at finding these on the brand packaging.

The biggest key to greenwashing is showing you are more than just a sheep. As a consumer you aren’t becoming overindulged in mindless consumption but are considering more about how to keep your wallet sustainable and having the biggest impact on your future as you can.


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