The term ‘greenwashing’ was first coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in an essay about an experience he had at a Fiji hotel resort which asked guests to reuse their towels; “It basically said that the oceans and reefs are an important resource, and that reusing the towels would reduce ecological damage…They finished by saying something like, ‘Help us to help our environment’…I don’t think they really cared all that much about the coral reefs, they were in the middle of expanding at the time, and were building more bungalows.”
Since then, the term has been used to describe a marketing technique where companies divert consumer focus to an eco-product or campaign, while simultaneously having a negative environmental impact in ways out of the spotlight.
There are a few forms greenwashing can take:
Companies use their branding image to convey an eco-friendlier portrayal of themselves. This includes using natural, green imagery as well as using eco buzz words in campaigns which imply they value the environment. An example of this is in 2009 when Mcdonald’s changed its logo colours from red and yellow to green and yellow. Vice chairman for Mcdonald’s Germany, Hoger Beek explained that the change was to “clarify our responsibility for the preservation of natural resources”, a claim and branding change which was not supported by any real proactive eco-friendly changes.
If you’re not concentrating it can be easy to be swept up in the green image and think the company is a sustainable one. But try not to be fooled, always look for proof of sustainability and genuine certifications which mean the company is ethical and eco-friendly.
- Exaggerating a genuine campaign
This is where a company does have a genuine eco service, and showcases it so that consumers forget or do not realise the damage they cause elsewhere. A recent example which I have noticed is this H&M advert:
H&M’s Conscious Collection claims to repurpose and recycle waste into new clothing, making H&M seem to be a sustainable and eco-friendly fashion choice. But their Conscious Collection makes up a tiny portion of the products they sell, and so by focusing on it, they are exaggerating their sustainability in order to appeal to more people, and ultimately make a profit. Many people have criticised their Conscious Collection, highlighting that despite the recycled or sustainable products which they offer, H&M is fundamentally a fast-fashion brand. As anti-fast fashion campaigner Venetia La Manna states, “Ultimately, the sheer amount of product H&M produces is causing irreversible harm to both planet and people, and completely outweighs their sustainability efforts…Fashion this fast can never and will never be sustainable.”
H&M also launched their in-store clothes recycling programme where you can drop off your old clothes to be recycled and in return you are given an H&M coupon. In fact, Henrik Lampa, H&M’s Development Sustainability Manager admitted that only 0.1% of donations are actually recycled into new clothing, and the rest goes to landfill.
While their eco-campaigns are better than nothing, with both of these H&M examples, you can see the company pushing this sustainable image by exaggerating their sustainability, which is misleading and may even fool consumers into buying their products over other companies which do make a real difference. If you are interested, I recommend watching this really informative and clear video about fast fashion and the environment:
- Misleading claims
Companies might have really great targets and claims about their environmental progress, but sometimes these can be misleading. Always check the small-print for specifics to clarify what they mean, if they really are an eco-friendly company, they will be more than happy to share details of how they operate sustainably. If you see a lot of sweeping statements without proof and explanations, then chances are that this company is guilty of greenwashing.
New guidance on greenwashing for businesses will be published by the UK's Competition and Markets Authority in June 2021, which will hopefully see companies reduce their greenwashing strategies, and ultimately build greater trust with consumers. It can be hard to see through the greenwashing techniques, some campaigns are really well executed, and of course we want to believe that companies are striving towards being eco-conscious and sustainable. It is important to be aware that greenwashing can be very convincing, and is everywhere. So next time you see an eco-campaign, research into it before you decide whether you want your money to go to that company.
A great app/website I have discovered is called Good On You. It ranks fashion brands on how ethical they are in regards to labour, environment, and animals. Simply search for the brand you are thinking of purchasing from and they will tell you how they are doing in each of these categories!