A fashion brand or retailer making misleading claims about the eco-friendliness of its products or services is greenwashing.
Greenwashing is illegal because it makes the company appear to be more environmentally friendly than it really is. Many fashion brands offer greenwashed products to solicit consumers' trust and make more profits.
Greenwashing is growing since more and more consumers are asking for environmentally friendly products, especially in the fashion industry.
The fashion industry has a disastrous impact on the planet. And people are starting to realize that this has to change.
Greenwashing is part of a marketing strategy that makes fashion brands appear more ethical and eco-friendly than they are to appeal to eco-conscious consumers.
Companies in the fashion industry are now realizing that this can't go on and will have long-term negative repercussions on their business.
But still, greenwashing continues to grow as the demand for green products rises.
Businesses use greenwashing as the easiest solution when they don't have the willingness or the ability to deliver on what eco-aware consumers are expecting.
Consumer demand for more environmentally responsible products is still rising rapidly. In America, 40% of consumers are now choosing green products over other options, according to Cone’s Green Gap 2008 survey.
And environmentally friendly consumer behavior is a global trend happening all around the world, according to National Geographic and Globescan’s latest Greendex study, which surveyed consumers in 18 countries.
This is trend is not only present in the fashion industry, but also in food, automobile, consumer electronics, personal care, and cosmetics.
The upcoming economic downturn will eventually decrease the demand for environmentally friendly products. But it will still remain a priority for a lot of consumers.
During the economic recession of 2009, Cone conducted the Consumer Environmental Survey with 1,087 U.S. adults and found that the demand for environmentally responsible products remained strong with the state of the economy. 44% indicate their environmental shopping habits have not changed as a result of the economy.
"Disinformation disseminated by an organization, etc., so as to present an environmentally responsible public image; a public image of environmental responsibility promulgated by or for an organization, etc., but perceived as being unfounded or intentionally misleading.”
- Oxford English Dictionary
Greenwashing is used by fashion and retailers to meet consumer demand for eco-friendly products and differentiate from the competition.
They promise a more efficient use of resources and energy, change their packaging and claim to be eco-friendly to catch customers' attention.
Greenwashing places the brand in a better light to increase sales. For consumers, it is challenging to check if what companies are claiming is actually true or not.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of greenwashing going on in the fashion industry and many companies get away with it. Adopting green practices in business is actually becoming a profitable strategy.
More consumers are willing to pay more for eco-friendly products and brands are expecting high growth from a favorable public image and higher profit margins.
But many green-labeled products or services don't have the environmental benefits they claim. They often present no supportive information.
Brands and retailers categorize garments being natural, bio, organic or recycled when in fact only a portion of the fibers used actually are. Shockingly, garments are too often manufactured by workers receiving no living wages under poor working conditions. Companies only show what consumers want to see.
Greenwashed products have been around for many years and their number is increasing at an alarming rate. As consumer demand for green products rises, fashion brands struggle to provide what is expected of them.
The greenwashing study from TerraChoice Environmental Marketing (2009) reported that within 2,219 products making green claims, 98% of them were guilty of greenwashing.
Greenwashing is illegal and unethical
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission FTC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established a set of "Green Guides" to provide guidance for companies to abide by the FTC Act when communicating environmental claims.
The FTC has warned about greenwash many times to protect consumers from unfair and deceptive practices. The Green Guides were developed in 1992 and revised in 2012.
The FTC requires the following general principles for environmental claims:
- The environmental message must be clear and prominent, taking into consideration relevant language and proximity to the subject.
- The environmental attribute should clearly refer to a product, a service, packaging, or a portion of any of these.
- The claim should not overstate the environmental benefit, explicitly or by implication.
- Any comparative claims should clearly present the basis for the comparison.
Many fast fashion brands and retailers have been accused of greenwashing recently including H&M, Boohoo, & Other Stories, Primark,
ASOS and Zara.
To learn more about what happened with these brands, read up our article on fast fashion brands accused of greenwashing.
Some companies finally stopped making misleading claims after FTC complaints. The FTC has filed complaints in the past about textiles marketed as natural bamboo.
"In fact, the fiber that's used in each of these is rayon. [...] The reason the FTC is on the beat is we want to make sure consumers get what they're paying for. [...] We’ve seen the antibacterial claims, and the experts tell us that any antibacterial properties the bamboo has are destroyed in this harsh chemical process that makes rayon. [...] We’ve also seen them associated with biodegradable claims, and with very specific environmental benefit claims, and we’re concerned about all of them."
- James A. Kohm, FTC Associate Director as told to GMA and SNEWS
The FTC made five of seven companies involved products labeled biodegradable stop their claims, but without admitting fault.
In Canada, an independent law enforcement agency (Competition Bureau of Canada) also published guidelines for environmental claims in advertisements in 2008. Greenwashing is illegal, according to the Bureau.
The guide requires advertisers to:
- avoid vague or misleading language,
- include verifiable and specific information,
- provide a relevant context in their claims.
Another example of greenwashing is claiming a product is 100% natural. It is too vague and up to the company to decide what isn’t natural. Similarly, using blue or green colors in advertisements to evoke nature is misleading.
In Europe, the Norwegian Consumer Authority (CA) demanded H&M apologize to consumers, for the promotion of its Conscious collection as it was illegal marketing.
In collaboration with the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK), the CA claims H&M breaches Norwegian marketing laws and misleads consumers by using symbols, statements, and color portraying its collection more sustainable than it really is.
How to prevent greenwashing
If you are a fashion brand or retailer willing to stop using greenwashing to market your products, you should:
- Know your products’ biggest impacts
- Be transparent
- Bolster your claims with independent verification
- Avoid making claims "in a vacuum."
- Enable and encourage consumers to act
- Understand your customers and target different market segments in different ways
- Anticipate game-changing technology
- Participate in the rule-making
As consumers, we can spot greenwashing and avoid buying from brands and labels doing it. This is how to recognize greenwashing:
- Fluffy language, words or terms with no clear meaning
- Green products made from dirty companies
- Suggestive pictures and green images that indicate an unjustified green impact
- Irrelevant claims emphasizing one tiny green attribute when everything else is not green.
- Claiming a product is slightly greener than the rest, even if the rest are pretty terrible.
- Claims that are just not credible
- Jargin or information that only a scientist could check or understand
- No proof or evidence to back up claims
- Lying with totally fabricated claims or data
"Companies have recognized the importance the environment plays for their longterm business operations, whether it’s manufacturing, product development, marketing and communications, or employee satisfaction. There are many avenues of conveying environmental leadership to consumers and constituents. But because everyone has become more aware and sophisticated in understanding environmental issues, whatever form the message takes, it needs to be authentic.”
- Claudia Malley, National Geographic Society Vice President
The demand for environmentally low-impact products continues to rise. People want products that are better for the environment, without misleading claims or marketing messages.
People want to support and buy from companies they believe in. Businesses have to use accurate communication to remain credible.
The consequences of getting it wrong are seen as greenwashing and damaging to reputation. Consumers are very likely to punish companies using greenwashing with fewer sales.
Avoiding deceptive environmental claims should be a concern to all companies, especially in the apparel and textile industry.
Greenwashing is hurting the industry as a whole. Consumers will not trust environmental-related claims in the future, and regulators will impose restrictions.
Greenwashing also prevents the development of a new sustainable textile economy. It slows down sustainability efforts drastically and makes it more difficult for consumers to understand the impacts of their purchasing decisions as they struggle to differentiate between valid and invalid claims.
Read up experts' opinions on the new sustainable textile industry in our article "how does fast fashion affect the economy".
Businesses have a strong role to play in improving the state of the planet. Companies have to develop and communicate their role in environmental stewardship to earn the trust of consumers.
More fashion brands and retailers should step up their efforts and communicate them effectively. More sustainability-focused companies will have better performance as they focus on long-term strategy, not just short-term gains.
We are at a critical moment in redefining the role of business in society. Improving one's own environmental reputation should not be the end goal. Companies have to take up their new role in society and contribute towards a more sustainable planet.
How should companies contribute to sustainability in the fashion industry?
About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks four languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.