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Greenwashing: The Damage it Does and How to Identify it


– Greenwashing is the lie that taints genuine intent. You can help get rid of it.

 

Written By Ryan Choong

 

“Lies run sprints, but the truth runs marathons” – Michael Jackson.


We should be proud of ourselves.

In the modern day, more and more of us are thinking about the future. We want to be more conscious of global issues which include the deterioration of nature. Most of us don’t want to be part of a problematic system, but these systems will still try to drag us into its gears because it needs us to function, to have power. And we need them to live safely.

Greenwashing is when a company uses misleading or outright false claims to market their product by suggesting that they are doing more for the environment and their workers than they actually are. This has major consequences as it detracts and reverses the positive impact other genuine green companies have, or can have, on the environment.

This term was made in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westervelt, but looking at how prevalent greenwashing is today, the word feels more like an eerie premonition than a term, especially in the fashion industry where greenwashing is not only common but effective.

A study by Edie Newsroom in June 2021 has found that “60% of sustainability claims by fashion giants are greenwashing”.

This means that we, as people who want to consciously consume, are being lied to and taken advantage of – all for profit. Not only is this moral bankruptcy sickening, it works, and it’s harming the environment and causing workers to be mistreated. What’s worse is that due to lax regulation laws, there is a severe lack of accountability for these damaging lies, further incentivising others to do the same.

So, once again, the responsibility to identify and expose the companies that Greenwash falls on us. Luckily, there are many ways to do so.

Identifying Greenwashing

  • Vagueness and lack of evidence: It is a glaring red flag when producers use as many “green” buzzwords (like “eco-friendly”, “ethical”, “sustainable”, and many more) in their marketing without providing any empirical evidence to back-up their claims or to at least reassure their customers of their validity. This is why staying mindful, doing research, and listening to numbers not words is vital when trying to be a green consumer. Also, it is important to check for certifications before buying from a company claiming to be green because certifications are well-known and easily checked, much more than the business they endorse. Truly green companies will usually have at least one certification from (but not limited to) Fair Trade Textiles Standards, Global Organic Textile Standard, Cradle to Cradle Certified, Organic Content Standards, and Bluesign. Remember, if there is nothing to hide, there is nothing that cannot be said regardless of if a company is “protecting its trade secrets”. Transparency is key.

 

  • No holistic change in operations: The bigger a company is, the harder it is to change. This is especially true when going green because it affects everything down to the last screw. It’s because of this that greenwashing companies often use the tactic of making a small part of their company “green” to attract conscious consumers – who are likely to spend more if they believe that the product is moral – while the rest of their company is anything but. Worse still is that these conscious consumers may buy more of that greenwashing company’s products thinking that they are all green, increasing their profits while doing essentially the same damage to the environment while giving big incentives to keep doing the same. This is why organisations like the Fair Wear Foundation, Worker Rights Consortium, and trade unions in general are important. They often give various reports on and conduct investigations into greenwashing company activities.

 

  • Conflicts of interests in long-term goals: The biggest difference between a greenwashing company and a truly green company is their business model. A greenwashing company will claim that they are already as green and as natural as they can be, often greatly exaggerating small – sometimes untrue – achievements. This is because they prioritise profit above people and the environment. A genuine green company is the opposite, prioritising positive impacts and continuous improvements over profit and all usually have carefully constructed plans, goals, and missions that are transparent to the public. These genuine companies will never say that they have done all they can because they know they can do more as they grow. They will also support, collaborate with, and recommended other like-minded businesses. The likelihood of this increases as a genuine company expands, whereas the bigger a greenwashing company is, the more they will compete with other companies doing the same thing because profit is not shared while nature, change, positive impacts, and happiness are.

 

  • Over-emphasising “naturalness”: Natural is not always best, especially when using natural materials to make a product. How a material is sourced is equally as important as what it is. Take cotton and bamboo as examples. Cotton is affordable, versatile, and hypoallergenic but requires absurd amounts of water, land, and chemicals to be made into clothing. Bamboo is sturdy and fast growing but many chemicals and pesticides are used to artificially increase this growth, leading to environmental damage and bamboo overgrowing to the detriment of other flora. Always be wary of those that oversell their “natural” products with lists of natural materials or overuse of generic green imagery without substance (certification, reputation, transparency) to back it up.

 

  • Treatment of workers: When companies, organisations, and people try to go green genuinely, the word “green” does not only refer to the environment. It is a stand-in for everything holistically positive like being natural, sustainable, fair, etc. And this means that “going green” also means improving working conditions, worker wages, and worker rights just as much as it means bettering the environment. Those who truly want to go green know this and actively strive for it, and so do all the certifiers and organisations mentioned above. Greenwashing companies don’t do this and that moral blindspot in how their workers are being treated can tell you everything. Are they under Fair Trade? What do their production areas look like? Can they unionise? Do they show workers on video and social media or behind the scenes? Please pay attention to the people behind the product. 

Greenwashing in Fashion and Fast Fashion

The fashion industry is one of the biggest culprits of greenwashing with “fast fashion” being the main problem. Fast fashion is a business model that is highly profitable because it replicates catwalk trends, seasonal trends, and other high-fashion designs at a low cost and mass produces them for the public. The products are then aggressively marketed, with greenwashing being a primary method in the modern day as it appeals to both fashion-conscious and environmentally-conscious consumers.

The fast fashion business model is only possible by exploiting workers in inhumane conditions and damaging the environment to keep costs as low as possible while maximising profit. And of course, it is the larger fashion producers or brands that can not only afford to use fast fashion effectively but can also repeatedly use it.

These companies can get away with greenwashing and fast fashion because governments don’t do enough regulation, there is too much bureaucracy for any significant form of transparency or accountability, and the moral guidelines are too vague with too many loopholes despite the efforts of the Competition and Market’s Authority (CMA).

There is barely any consequence to such immoral practices, no risk all reward, and due to this, businesses will just keep going and going.

The only thing that can stop these fast fashion businesses is us. In the end, all these businesses want is our money. So, though it seems impossible to stop things like slave labour in sweatshops and environmental damage, we still have more power that meets the eye.

The fast fashion companies know this, using limited-time seasonal offers and marketing that appeals to our better nature to manipulate us.

But hopefully, this article has reminded you how to be aware of all that trickery. That is Conscious Studios’ mission: to inspire, educate, and lead by example for a global shift in consciousness towards sustainable design, sourcing, ethical production, collaboration, and conscious marketing. One of the ways we do this is by making products like bags and containers out of upcycled denim that look cozy and fashionable.

And we’re not the only ones doing our part. Organisations like the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN) and the CMA are actively trying to expose greenwashing as a criminal act. There are also trade unions, activists, and smaller genuinely green businesses doing all they can to combat this exploitative practice.

And you can do your part too.

The next time you decide to buy, remember that buying is investing. Try to dig deeper to find out where your money goes and if it is ethical or not. look out for greenwashing, educate others, and stay mindful. Speak with your money because money is power, opinion, and incentive. Refuse to spend on greenwashing companies and eventually, there won’t be enough incentive for them to continue in the face of this global greenwashing crackdown. Do not let yourself be part of the problem.

We can win. But we need all the help we can get.

And you can start with thus checklist the next time you want to make sure that your purchases are genuinely green. Ideally, meeting all 5 points would be best but nothing is perfect, so 3 should be the minimum:

  1. Seller transparency (like in supply chains, goals, and websites)
  2. Certifications
  3. Specific evidence to prove claims
  4. Partnerships or collaborations with other green businesses
  5. Social media content that supports being ethically green

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