Greenwashing is rife, not only in fashion but all businesses. If you are not sure what Greenwashing means, how greenwashing affects you, or how to spot it and what to do about it, this blog will help you.
What is Greenwashing?
In short – its an attempt to steer attention away from the bad stuff and get people to focus on the good stuff (usually a very small percentage of the overall picture).
It’s not a new expression or concept – but it has remained one that hasn’t been widely used in everyday conversations, until now. People have been talking about it since the 1980’s (however the act of greenwashing has been around for much longer). The term “Greenwashing” was officially coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986. It was back when radio, print and TV commercials were a major source of information for the mass consumer market. Marketeers and advertisers have had for a long time suffered from a bad rep for the way they have glamourised product and service benefits and hiding the facts and flaws. Let’s hold off of the Mad Men, John Draper comments for now.
White Lies & Green Lies
You’ve probably heard of white lies? Little lies that are thought to be trivial and not intended to hurt anyones feelings. We all know how white lies turn out – someone always get hurt. Well a expression called “white washing’ is a more commonly known attempt to hide unpleasant facts and make people trust political parties. Greenwashing is the eco-version of white lies – it’s an attempt to be appear more green, sustainable and ethical and distract people from the every-day reality of what’s not being done.
This will include misleading and over-emphasising the efforts taken to produce a product, service or practice so it seems more environmentally and ethically friendly than it is.
Why does Greenwashing Exist?
Greenwashing exists because there’s a lot that needs to be done to be considered ‘green’. It’s normally used to gain a competitive advantage and avoid spending money on areas which do require attention and radical change. It’s all about over emphasising what is being done – and keeping what isn’t (especially behind closed doors) a secret. Greenwashing is an extremely unethical practice used by companies and individuals to make more money, influence outcomes and solicit trust.
Sometimes people can be greenwashing without realising it – but if that’s the case then we must question how much they know about what’s going on in their own business, how they select and manage their suppliers and what their overall morals are. Most business owners are aware of the more ‘shady’ side of marketing and it’s their choice to tell their story a certain way.
Often people fear the repercussions of admitting that things aren’t as rosy as they seem. Here at EBD we recommend that brands are open and fully transparent about what they are doing – as well as what they are not. It’s OK to be a work in progress and it’s almost impossible to claim to be 100% ethical and 100% sustainable, although we applaud any brands who are aiming to reach that status. It is a costly exercise and one that many small brands simply cannot afford when they are starting out.
Who is Greenwashing?
“People are getting more aware of the rarity of the Earth and the ways that our actions impact it,” says Jason Ballard, CEO of sustainable home improvement retailer TreeHouse. At the same time, he notes, greenwashing has become more complex. “It’s the dark side of a very positive development,” he says..“ It’s misdirection, and it’s intended to shift the customer’s focus from a company’s appalling behaviours to something that’s peripheral,” (Source: Guardian)
Anyone and any type of business can be accused of greenwashing. We could argue that it’s much cheaper for a large organisation like H&M for example to showcase their eco-conscious range than address the environmental damage caused by their existing business model. We could question why they invest so much in building their CSR strategy and team. For many large organisations they’ll allocate a substantial advertising budget to share all their new green ideas, new products and innovations. Whilst they are doing this, it could easily be said that not enough, time, energy or resource is being invested in actually stopping all the things that are damaging the environment, the welfare of workers and animals.
Am I Accidentally Greenwashing?
The sad truth is that many brands fall into this category!
If you are a brand, especially a fashion brand take a quick peek at The Swatch Book a blog ran by our friend Charlie Ross over at OffSet Warehouse, way back in 2015 Charlie wrote a blog titled: Are You Greenwashing? How Greenwashing Destroys Brands – it’s also worth a read if you’re interested in knowing more about how your clothes are made, especially the textile process (which is the most damaging part of fashion – the creation of materials, dying, and disposal of textiles are huge burden on the planet) More on that, some insightful stats and facts coming soon in another blog ;-).
If you are questioning your credentials as a business in any way, shape or form – then the chances are that others will be too. Take this as an opportunity to challenge your thinking and what you do. Brands should aim to be as transparent as possible. Consumers should be able to find out anything and everything about a business.
Buying from Legitimate Green Brands
As a consumer being ‘ethical’ can be a minefield – if you’re on the fence about buying a product, ask the brand questions – or just choose brands listed on credible sources such as the Ethical Brand Directory. I actually wrote a blog with 5 key questions you should ask a brand to see if they are legit back in 2017: Is that Ethical Fashion Brand Legit? 5 Questions to ask them right now. You can use this as a model for qualifying brands and seeing if their values are aligned with your own before buying from them.
Greenwashing In Small Businesses
Very often you’ll see examples of this in smaller businesses – where wannabe entrepreneurs will pick out a variety of key buzz words and try and come across with strong ethical and sustainable credentials.
I’ve seen this myself, with many businesses, not just fashion or beauty. I see business coaches and marketers, life coaches and even image consultants branding themselves as green, ethical or sustainable, without really going into any detail of what that looks like or how it’s even measured or offset against all the stuff they are NOT doing.
People are over-using the words ethical and sustainable (as these are “hot buzz words” right now) in order to come across as more credible in their market. Be wary of this if you are an ethical business or blogger – whilst many people are in fact doing a lot to make a positive impact, their marketing efforts may not reflect that. That’s why it’s worth talking to our friends at Green Story who can help you show your measurable impact in a way that makes sense to the average Jo.
Greenwashing & Share Prices
H&M, like all companies of their size, are going to experience massive challenges with their global operation structure. Their business is complex and big changes wont happen over night. I am certain there are many un-sung heroes working hard within the organisations to influence change, fighting against the resistence and persevering to make a difference.
But very little will change until shareholders see that being authentically green and ethical will increase the share prices, our planet does not have finite resources, the cost of production using land and water will go up as we run out of these commodities. Fast-fashion cannot continue to operate as it does for much longer – stock prices will crash and fall eventually and the brands who have invested in long term sustainable operations will see the benefits for many years to come. The beauty industry and even the food industry has a lot to answer for when it comes to plastic… consumerism has hit an all time low when it comes to ethics. We’ve lost sight of what we do and the consequences.
Until this is a hard-hitting reality that our planet is suffering at the hands of humans becomes irreversibly real, shareholders will want the most cost effective solution implemented – not necessarily the greenest. The Business Insider posted a compelling list of 10 reasons why companies should care about being sustainable here. We’d welcome your ideas too – please post these in the comments section.
How To Spot Greenwashing
- Search for evidence of ethical and environmentally practices on their website and other publications. If the have an authentic story it shouldn’t be hard.
- Look for those BUZZ words – have they explained how they are ethical and sustainable and their definition of the words?
- What’s their story WHY do they care? Why does it matter? Does their story ring true? Do they genuinely seem authentic and passionate or are they jumping on the bandwagon?
- Look at the relationships between their customers, clients, suppliers and even the brands they endorse and use.
- An authentic green brand isn’t just about appearing green from 9-5pm, the little things matter. Finding out what the CEOs, founders and staff do can also be telling.
- Integrity should be at the core of what any good business does. You can spot a business that is confused about its purpose and doesn’t have clear values.
- Too much hype and not enough substance – ask yourself beyond the pretty pictures and all that chit-chat on social media, is this company actually doing what it claims to be doing?
See it, Report It, Challenge it
If a company isn’t telling the whole story – ask them. Any credible, honest CEO or founder/business owner will welcome an email or phone call from a genuinely interested party looking for more information about what they do and how they do it. They should have nothing to hide.
If you’re not sure what are the myths and facts in environmental, sustainability and ethical claims shown on any company website, especially when using ‘Planting Trees and going Digital’ as their sustainability credentials – you should check out: www.twosides.info which is a cool site dedicated to educating their members to minimise and reduce the environmental impact of their business activities so that they contribute to Sustainable Development.
They encourage submissions from folks like you, they want us to report misleading claims on company websites. They then try and work with them to address the issues!
Brands On The Ethical Brand Directory (EBD)
2018 marks the start of a much more rigorous auditing approach for brands selected and invited to join the community. As with all matters of business, in life and for fun, I aim to seek the most stylish, ethical and sustainable options. When it comes to fashion, you’ll know that I have been on my no-shopping clothes detox and championing sustainable styling for the past 2-years. In April 2018 I will complete my capsule collection only buying from brands on the EBD (wherever possible). Having total clarity on how I want to live my life has directed impacted the way I run my business over at Roberta Style Lee and how I manage the Ethical Brand Directory project. I want to find out as much as I can about a brand before I list them:
Green Peace have spoken about the need to detox the textile industry. They say “our addiction to fast fashion and the increasing rate that clothes are made, bought, used and thrown away is amplifying the environmental and human impacts of fashion”. And it’s true. We’ve lost sight of quality over the past 20-years and fallen into a society that buys on mass, seeing quantity as the new mark of success or satisfaction, caring less about durability and long lasting impact. The truth is we’ve never been more wasteful as a society and the Ethical Brand Directory is just one small resource designed to make a positive difference – I hope this helps take the stress out of searching and shopping for stylish brands that are fairly made, easy. Keep an eye on GreenPeace as they push for more fashion brands to start “closing and slowing the loop”.
The EBD Brand Auditing Process will now include:
- Ranking their efforts in terms of ethics across their supply chain, their sustainability efforts across operations, sourcing transparency, materials used, fair working conditions for workers, environmental policies, shipping & packaging.
- Checking and validating any claims and memberships and certifications.
- Interviewing the founders/owners to understand their story, motivation and overall lifestyle.
- Reviewing their website and published policies.
- Highlighting if key information is missing and asking them to provide it.
- Personally reviewing the products and services (if applicable).
- Inviting EBD members to contribute to the blog, to share and demonstrate their expertise and the lengths they are taking to become a more ethical and sustainable brand.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog. If you’ve got any comments or suggestions please don’t hesitate to get in touch!
Founder of Ethical BrandDirectory, Stylist & Coach at Roberta StyleLee
Additional Greenwashing Reading & Resources: