The Definition of Greenwashing
We’ve all heard about whitewashing: trying to cover something up that is unsavoury or unwanted, and hoping that no one sees through the white paint. It’s a metaphor meaning to gloss over or cover up vices. It’s leaving out an important detail in a story, or distracting people from mistakes that have been made. Greenwashing, is cleverly derived from “whitewashing” to describe a more modern concept: pretending to be more environmentally friendly than you actually are – hence the “green”.
How Can You Tell?
It can sometimes be very difficult to tell whether or not a company, a fashion designer, or a government is “greenwashing” over their actions, but there are often many key signs that you can look out for.
A big tell: has a company suddenly made a huge statement that they have promoted heavily in advertising, but do not seem to have much evidence or statistics to back it up? This is very common when it comes to greenwashing, as it is a lot cheaper to spend a little money on marketing and advertising that states that they are green and eco-friendly, than actually investing a huge amount of time and energy into transforming their practices to greener methods.
Examples of Greenwashing
There are many different examples of how a company can greenwash over their unethical and environmentally unfriendly policies. For example, some will use an advert that purposefully misleads the audience in an attempt to convince them that they are actually much more environmentally aware than they are. Some will even include visuals and statistics that seem to back up their claim – check the very bottom of the screen for small print sentences. Sometimes this can highlight more information about the numbers that they are quoting, and suggest that the figures are actually not useful or meaningful.
Many examples of greenwashing are just vague statements that include buzzwords that sound great, but have very little actual meaning. Lastly, there are many examples of greenwashing in which a company will leave out important information in order to make themselves look a lot greener than they actually are.
Many fashion companies are jumping on the green bandwagon and questions are often asked about the legitimacy of their green policies. Can an industry based on consumerism ever be truely genuine with their green efforts?
H&M are an interesting example to look at. For the past few years they have been very vocal with their eco-conscious collection using organic cotton and recycled polyester for example, and have put a lot of funding into green innovation. They also have a promise that by 2020 100% of their cotton will be sustainably sourced.
They are making big steps towards ‘greening’ their brand, and some may say are doing a lot more than other fast fashion brands. But, as their business model is still based on super fast turnover of stock, 30 to 40 trends a year, producing cheap disposable clothing- many of their detractors think that until they put effort into stopping this conspicuous consumption, they can never really be truly green. It really is for the individual consumer to decide.
One way to check up on the ethical policies of fashion brands is to take a look at the Greenpeace Detox Fashion project. They are encouraging a toxic-free future for the fashion industry and are calling on “companies to adopt and implement an individual Detox solution, committing to eliminate the use and release of all hazardous chemicals from their global supply chain and products by 1 January 2020.” They are also calling out the brands who are ‘greenwashing’ their efforts.
How To Avoid Greenwashing As A Designer
Saying you are “Green” can be a double edge sword. It means you are under much greater scrutiny, often much more than a company making no effort at all. You can be making all the effort in the world to be as green or ethical as possible but if you slip up in one area, or are proven to be not quite green as you first said it can all come crashing down.
You may remember the Elle UK, Fawcett Society and Whistles “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirt controversy from last year – The Mail on Sunday ‘exposed‘ the working conditions and low pay of the garment workers making the t-shirts. This overshadowed the whole feminist campaign, and even though the campaigners later released statements proving they were made in ethical conditions. It is not what everyone remembers about the issue.
So, as a brand what can you do? Firstly, be honest. Don’t make promises that you can’t keep, don’t make claims that you cannot demonstrably prove with honest statistics, and be honest about the areas which your fashion work is struggling to be green about. Consumers appreciate honesty. Being totally upfront will also mean that your customers can see the changes and steps you’re making to being even more green – which can be just as powerful as being green to start with.
Avoiding greenwashing is not simple, and you may think it is easier to gloss over the facts – but being seen as a greenwasher can destroy your brand. Be honest about your work and not only will your practice be greener, but your customers will trust you more too.