Greenwashing is a form of marketing spin that paints products, aims and policies as being more environmentally friendly than they actually are. It’s unfortunately becoming more and more common, as big corporations try to take advantage of increasing consumer demand for sustainable products. So how can you tell if you’re being greenwashed?
The highest profile greenwashing scandal of recent years involved Volkswagen and their ‘eco-friendly’ diesel cars. In 2015 the American Environment Protection Agency (EPA) exposed chips hidden in Volkswagen engines that could detect when a vehicle was being emissions tested, and reduce the emissions output for the test. The scandal shone a light on the practise of greenwashing, and campaign groups went on to call out some of the biggest companies in the world. Unfortunately, 5 years later greenwashing is still rife, and some of the world’s best known brands are still making unsubstantiated claims that they are helping save the planet.
It’s just a collection
Creating ‘green’ collections is one of the most commonly used types of greenwashing within the fashion industry. Brands like H&M will make a small number of ‘consciously’ produced garments to create a ‘conscious collection’, and then repeatedly highlight it to make it appear a much more significant part of their collection.
H&M has recently come under scrutiny from the Marketing Control Act in Norway, who are concerned that the Conscious Collection is produced with no certifications or standards, and no evidence that guarantees the garments are produced sustainably.*
The brand has also come under scrutiny in the past for their claims of creating a circular economy by setting up a buy back scheme. Customers are encouraged to bring back unwanted H&M clothing in return for a £5 voucher. There is no evidence that these clothes are put into any kind of recycling scheme and not incinerated or put into landfill.
A hidden trade-off is when a company makes claims about something they are doing to help people or the planet, but they are actually profiteering in some way from it. Toilet roll brands that claim the toilet roll they are selling helps plant trees are a good example, as in many cases they are just replacing the trees that were cut down to make the toilet paper in the first place.
Big claims, little actions
Claiming that a product is good for environment when actually it is only slightly better than a competitor’s product is another popular form of greenwashing. In the fashion industry this often presents itself through claiming that a brand’s fabrics are more sustainable than their competitors’.
Sears were caught out claiming their ‘100% pure bamboo’ range was superior to brands that used 100% cotton. However when this was investigated by Textile Products Identifications it was found that the material used in the range was actually rayon. Rayon uses bamboo within its production, but the process to create it uses a huge amount of toxic chemicals, making it far less sustainable than bamboo or cotton.
So who IS getting it right?
In contrast to these acts of greenwashing, many smaller brands and businesses are getting it right. Unlike H&M, brands like Swedish Stockings are working hard to create working circular economy. The hosiery brand makes all its products from recycled nylon from fishing nets, and they offer a 10% discount when you return used tights (from any brand) to them. Unfortunately, the technology is not yet there to turn these back into tights, but the brand uses the old tights to make fibreglass to create a range of furniture and storage tanks for oil in restaurants.
In recent years there has been a huge increase in products that are good for the environment, and although this has created a surge in greenwashing by larger companies, there are many small brands doing fantastic things. Who Gives a Crap? toilet paper is made from 100% recycled paper, meaning no trees are directly cut down to create the product. The brand also gives 50% of their profits to NGOs that work to provide toilets to people without sanitation.
Not all brands are misleading about the source of their products. The Spanish brand Thinking Mu has QR codes on all of their products' swing tags that let you see the factory the product came from as well as the carbon and water usage from manufacture.
At 69b Boutique we only work with brands who we're confident are doing their best for the environment and for the people who work for them. You can see more about our sustainable brands here.