This post was originally a youtube video made by the amazing Verena (Erin) Polowy from My Green Closet (embedded below). As it wasn’t a usual blog post I could syndicate, I have used Erin’s video notes to create a written guide to what she talks about in the video. Enjoy!
Greenwashing is definitely a problem. I, and probably some of you, have been tricked by greenwashing at some point. And while there’s no guaranteed way to avoid it, there are some things we can look out for.
Greenwashing refers to when brands promote or spin themselves to make it seem like they’re a lot more environmentally conscious than they actually are; putting way more energy and effort into marketing themselves as “green” instead of actually reducing their impact. The term was first used to criticise the hotel industry; hotels were putting up signs about reusing towels and how environmentally conscious they were for doing this, when in reality it made very little difference in the impact of a hotel, and if they actually cared they would need to do a lot more.
Nowadays we can see examples of government greenwashing such as using terms like “clean coal” or “clean burning gas” to promote these known environmentally harmful fuels and trying to make them seem less bad. In fashion greenwashing typically happens when brands make big claims about how environmentally conscious they are, without actually doing very much in practice.
So how can you tell if a brand is greenwashing?
Basically you want to look for discrepancies between what they’re saying and what they’re doing.
Brands know that consumers want more transparency and better practices and products, so they create social and environmental responsibility pages, set goals, and make claims to try and show they care and are improving. This unfortunately makes it really difficult to figure out what’s actually going on. But here are some things to look for:
- What % of their collection is ethical/sustainable?
With brands like H&M their sustainable and recycled products only make up a small percentage of their overall inventory, and yet they rely heavily on it to promote how conscious they are.
If brands are actually sustainable all or the majority of their products should be eco friendly in some way, or if they’re newer to sustainability they should be aggressively trying to improve their products and manufacturing. Not just talking about it.
- How transparent are they?
The amount of information brands make available can be a helpful indicator of their values. Brands that don’t give details on things such as their factories, practices or materials can create suspicions about how genuine they are, but even brands that do give details may not be as genuine as they seem. Some brands seem to have a lot of information, but you need to look at how vague they are. If there’s a lot of fluffy writing about how much they care about the environment or their workers, without any actual policies or details, that isn’t good.
Ideally brands will have specific information, for example the kinds of materials they use, where they manufacture, what kinds of policies and programs they have to ensure fair wages, safety and reduced pollution. There’s a big difference in saying “we try to reduce out impact” vs. saying “we’re doing these specific things to reduce our impact.”
- What is their track record?
It’s also worth researching if the brand has a history of being untrustworthy or trying to deceive people. You can easily search the brand and “greenwashing” online to see if any stories about this are already out there.
For example 5 years ago H&M made a bunch of claims and set goals for sustainability and living wages, one of which was that they would be paying all workers a living wage by 2018, but now this goal has just disappeared from their rhetoric.
CCC and LBL have looked into how they’re not paying living wages and also this “deadline” has now morphed into H&M’s “living wage strategy” which has no deadline and mostly fluffy wording so there isn’t really a way to hold them accountable (sources: 1, 2, 3, 4). This, amongst other things, shows me that H&M isn’t trustworthy – if a brand has done some shady work in the past I would proceed with caution.
- What about smaller brands with less information available?
For big fast fashion brands this information is usually easier to find and there are independent groups reporting on and doing research into them, which isn’t the case with many small brands. Instead try to assess how much they’re using sustainability to promote themselves vs what they’re actually doing.
If a company talks a lot about how sustainable they are and uses that as a marketing tool, but then there isn’t very much evidence of it in practice or the products I would be suspicious. For example if a brand is really promoting how conscious they are but all they’re doing is using organic cotton, while that is better than other brands, a brand that is really conscious of their impact should also be trying to do better in other areas, for example looking at packaging, using low impact dyes and reducing energy use.
In my experience brands that truly care aren’t just saying, “okay we did this one thing so we’re good.” they’re always trying to find ways to do better, and looking at different areas where they can reduce their impact.
Also look out for what information is being left out, perhaps information such as materials or manufacturing details.
For example a brand I’ve called out before for greenwashing is Matt & Nat. Right in their “about” page they talk about their commitment to the environment and on their ethics and sustainability page they say:
“PU is less harmful for the environment than PVC and we make it a point to use it whenever possible” (source)
However I found out the majority of their products are actually made from PVC which is very harmful to the environment and people. On their website they don’t even say a product is made from PVC, they only list the recycled lining with no mention of the PVC outer material. This makes it seem like they’re trying to hide that information, but still make it seem like they’re sustainable since they use a recycled lining (You can read a full blog post on Mat & Nat and why I no longer purchase their products here). To me leaving out key information, like that your product is made from PVC but then promoting your recycled bottle lining, is greenwashing.
- What else you can do
If you have questions about a brand and their practices, ask them for more information! If brands are open and willing to provide more information that’s usually a good sign. You can also look for reliable certifications, meaning you don’t have to just trust what the brand is saying but that a third party has also verified their products or practices.
Essentially read through what a brand has to say, do a search to see if anyone else has talked about potential ethical or sustainable issues with them, and trust your gut – I think you can get a sense if brand seem genuine and transparent or a bit shady.
It’s really important to also say that even though there are some brands greenwashing and we might occasionally get fooled, this doesn’t you can’t trust anyone or to approach all sustainable brands with suspicion. While it is really unfortunate that brands greenwash it’s most often the big ones, and a lot of small independent brands are just trying to make products they believe in that reflect their values.
Also nobody’s perfect and everyone has something to work on so you can’t expect a brand to be 100% sustainable, it’s more about finding brands that align with your personal priorities/values and style.
While greenwashing is good to look out for, I also don’t think it’s good when people are suspicious of all sustainable brands.There’s a lot of genuine brands out there doing amazing things, so it’s good to celebrate their good work instead.