It’s undeniable that sustainability, environmental impact and ethical manufacturing processes are ‘on trend’ at the moment. And as a result, every brand, company and organization wants in. Everyone’s gone green and it’s easy to think that everyone’s doing their bit for the environment. But, are they?
It’s easy for us all to be pulled into the rhetoric that by investing in ‘Product A’ or supporting ‘Brand B’, we’re positively contributing to these current ‘trends’. While some brands and organizations are authentic ambassadors of sustainability and are proactively contributing to ethical practices or doing their bit to replenish the earth’s resources, many simply aren’t. And it’s the noise generated by the disingenuous that is masking the legitimate. That noise is “greenwashing.”
What is Greenwashing?
Wikipedia defines greenwashing or ‘green sheen’ as “a form of spin in which green PR or green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception an organization’s products, aims or policies are environmentally friendly.”
Given the current global debate on climate change and our impact on the Earth, greenwashing has seen a marked increase in recent years. The term (and practice) has existed for much longer, but many brands and organizations have arrived at a cross roads where if they are not seen to be actively claiming and promoting their environmental and ethical practices, they are at a distinct disadvantage with the consumer.
The easiest accepted way to determine the extent to which a company is greenwashing is to compare expenditure on advertising being ‘green’ against money spent on actual environmentally sound practices. But for the everyday consumer, this can be challenging and time consuming data to find, so read on to find out more about greenwashing and how to see through the noise.
When did Greenwashing First Develop?
The term itself was coined in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, at a time when many large corporations were making outrageous environmental claims in the media. One such example was Chevron oil company, who produced a series of advertisements under the title ‘People Do’ which showed the organization’s employees engaging with animals and the natural environment.
Even today, the oil industry and environmental awareness don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, let alone in the 1980s, but so good was Chevron’s advertisements that they even won awards and were used as a case study at Harvard. In retrospect, this isn’t hard to believe as The Guardian reminds us, “the combination of limited public access to information and seemingly unlimited advertising enabled companies to present themselves as caring environmental stewards, even as they were engaging in environmentally unsustainable practices.” But these practices existed even before the 1980s, when companies like Westinghouse professed the cleanliness and safety of nuclear power.
Westerveld himself became more aware of the issue as a result of towels. That’s right, towels. You know, when you see that polite notice in a hotel bathroom asking you to reuse your towels during your stay, so that it lessens the hotel’s environmental impact? Yeah, that’s greenwashing for you.
What occurred to Westerveld when he was at the Beachcomber Resort in Fiji was that the hotel was more concerned with their own expenditure on laundry (at a time of expansion) rather than the wellness of local coral reefs. A few years after the instance in Fiji, Westerveld wrote a term paper remarked that noted it all came out in a ‘greenwash’, thus the concept was born.
Why is Greenwashing a Problem?
It isn’t hard to see the immediate problem(s) with greenwashing; by laying claim to sustainable and environmentally friendly practices but not supporting these marketing initiatives with real action, the consumer is betrayed and misled.
In addition, due to the volume of greenwashing and the trend of being green, many consumers are left confused as a result of the sheer volume of information available in the media and the over-whelming use of associated terminology. Unfortunately, with reference to TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, there has been a 79% increase in the usage of corporate greenwashing between 2007 and 2009 alone. While this is sinister enough, another fundamental problem with greenwashing is that some corporations commit greenwashing in order to cover up their environmentally destructive practices. So the reality of an organization’s environmental awareness can be vastly different from the slick PR campaign.
Guilty vs. Not Guilty
As mentioned above, there are plenty of organizations and brands that are working authentically and proactively to off-set there carbon footprints. Unfortunately this genuine approach can be overshadowed by dishonest greenwashing of other corporations and it is becoming increasingly difficult for the end consumer to decipher the real from the fake.
Harkening back to Chevron’s People Do campaign, the marketing not only gave consumers a false impression of the environmental good that Chevron was doing but also covered up a questionable environmental record, as when the ads were being run the company were violating the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and spilling oil into wildlife refuges. Of course, Chevron wasn’t alone in this and companies like DuPoint and Weyerhaeuser adopted a similar approach.
Obviously, the fossil fuel industry is one of the largest culprits of green washing, but it occurs in fashion too. For example, apparel giant Boohoo announced they would ban all wool in their clothes. All well and good, right? That is until it was later found out that no wool products were stocked by the company and that the fake fur they used could be even worse for the environment.
Another commonplace example of greenwashing is changing out plastic bags for paper bags and while this is seen as a positive by the consumer (and is undoubtedly better for the environment), are brands applying the same ethos to their production processes and the supply chain? The latter accounts for over 70% of the carbon footprint of the fashion industry, so if brands really want to make an impact, they need to begin here (rather than installing solar panels at their company HQ).
One brand which has pioneered sustainability within our industry, is Ventura natives Patagonia. Harkening back to the brand’s origins, early Patagonia catalogs acted more as an essay on environmental impact than an offering of new product.
Over the decades, founder Yvon Chouinard has driven the brand to become one of the most environmentally aware corporations around. From their infamous Black Friday campaign which encouraged consumers not to buy another jacket they might not need, to their contributions to 1% For the Planet, actively campaigning on environmental issues, funding grass roots activism and the transparency of their supply chain, this outdoor giant has set the standard for a truly green approach to manufacturing and retail.
But not all brands have access to the resources or funding that Patagonia might, though that doesn’t mean smaller brands can’t adopt a similar approach. Take Story Mfg. for example, a husband and wife team that have built their business and brand out of a “desire for a more authentic, fulfilling and kind approach to fashion.”
Their manifesto sets out their activities and vision for a more positive future and a kinder way to treat the Earth. The manifesto pledges that the brand won’t use harmful chemicals and animal products in their garments, that almost everything is made from organic bio-degradable materials that will become nutrient rich fertilizer, and the brand’s greater goal is focused on reversing the damage done by the fashion industry and using practices which leave the environment in a better state after their work is done.
How Can you be Sure of Sincerity?
So now that you know what greenwashing is and the common language used, how can you be sure the brands which you’re investing in aren’t just talking the talk? The challenge really does lie with the consumer in order to distinguish between brands which are making serious commitments to sustainability as opposed to those are are simply making superficial claims.
The first step as is to do your research and second is to question. See what information is available on the brand, not only from the brand themselves but from other sources (like us!). See what claims they are making and do some research to gauge whether there is any substance to the statements. There are plenty of watchdogs out there, like Good On You, who campaign for a more sustainable and fair fashion industry.
Similarly, the Global Fashion Agenda are driving a sustainable transformation within the industry and regularly publish reports with their research findings. Another way the consumer can take control of their investment in sustainable brands is to shop vintage. By investing in garments which already exist, rather than fueling the demand for new product, the consumer is directly lessening their own carbon footprint. In addition, investing in smaller scale brands—who have smaller supply chains and are actively working towards off-setting environmental impact—can also be a way of avoiding greenwashing.
Jason Ballard, CEO of sustainable home improvement retailer TreeHouse notes that greenwashing is “the very dark side of a very positive development” which is further reinforced by Andrew Chun, who has been investing in sustainable startups since 2006, states “fundamentally, it’s a good thing that brands are feeling pressure to keep up with consumer demand for sustainable companies and products, but now the challenge is to distinguish between brands that are making serious, holistic commitments to sustainability, and brands that are making more superficial tweaks.”
While the origins of greenwashing and the impact on the consumer (as well as the environment) are undoubtedly negative, the awareness of the concept and the pressure it puts on brands, corporations and organizations to do real environmental good is the silver lining. With continued consumer interest in sustainability, the increase of watchdogs and the availability of relevant data is a positive step in the right direction.