April 22, 2023

This Earth Day Let's Put an End to Greenwashing

Photo by Nick Collins on Unsplash

A lot of attention has being given to sustainability initiatives in the fashion industry in recent years. There is overwhelming evidence supporting the fact that consumers are shifting their spending towards brands that operate sustainably and who share their concerns about their impact on the environment. Brands are beginning to notice, and are taking various steps in response.

Unfortunately, not all of those responses are genuine. In particular, the concept of sustainability in fashion is often marred by greenwashing — a misleading marketing tactic used to create an eco-friendly image without making substantial changes to production practices. It’s crucial to put an end to this practice in order to achieve genuine progress towards long-term sustainability. On this Earth Day, we turn our attention to addressing the problem of greenwashing in fashion.

Understanding Greenwashing

Greenwashing is the practice of making false or exaggerated claims about a brand’s environmental impact or sustainability practices. Brands are aware that consumers are increasingly shopping with brands who operate sustainably, so by making themselves seem more sustainable than they actually are, these brands hope to mislead consumers into buying their products. A fair number fashion brands (particularly fast-fashion brands) have been accused of greenwashing, with some companies claiming to use sustainable materials while sourcing from unverified or unsustainable sources, or using vague or undefined terms like “eco-friendly” and “ethical” without providing evidence to back up their claims.

Why Ending Greenwashing Matters

There are several important reasons to put a stop to greenwashing:

1. Protecting Consumer Trust

When consumers purchase sustainable products, they often do so based on the values and principles that are important to them. Greenwashing undermines that trust by making it difficult for consumers to identify brands who are truly sustainable, and as a result, they may feel disillusioned and betrayed. Ending greenwashing will help restore consumer trust and empower consumers to make informed choices. Consumer pressure in the form of spending is crucial to providing the right market incentive for brands to change.

2. Encouraging Genuine Progress

Greenwashing can hinder the progress of sustainability in fashion by diverting attention and resources away from meaningful change. Though it is obviously cheaper to spend money on marketing a false claim of sustainability than it is to actually become more sustainable, doing so does nothing to actually move the needle. By putting an end to this practice, the industry can focus on developing and implementing genuine, innovative solutions that minimize environmental impact and promote sustainable practices.

3. Promoting Transparency

Transparency is a vital aspect of advancing sustainable practices. Brands that are transparent about their supply chains, production processes, and materials are more likely to be accountable for their actions and make genuine improvements. That transparency can also help consumers compare the activities of one brand to another, which will help them in making more informed decisions (assuming those disclosures are measured against a universal standard — we’ll talk about that a bit later). It will also help brands measure their progress against their peers.

4. Leveling the Playing Field

Greenwashing gives an unfair advantage to companies that choose to deceive consumers, allowing them to profit from the goodwill associated with sustainability without making meaningful changes. By eliminating greenwashing, the fashion industry can create a level playing field for brands that genuinely invest in sustainable practices, rewarding their efforts and encouraging further innovation. In practice, this will benefit smaller brands, many of whom have already done the hard work of making sure that their operations are sustainable and responsible.

How to Combat Greenwashing

There are several things that consumers can do to combat greenwashing. However, in order to make real change, regulators will need to get involved simply because market forces aren’t always enough to force companies to do the right thing.

For example, consumers can educate themselves about sustainable practices and materials so that they can better discern between genuine sustainability claims and deceptive marketing tactics. They can also demand transparency from brands regarding their supply chains, materials, and production processes by asking for certifications, information on their suppliers, or detailed reports on their sustainability efforts. Of course, they can send a clear message to brands that greenwashing will not be tolerated by choosing to buy from brands that are transparent and committed to sustainable practices.

If enough consumers act in this way, meaningful pressure can be put on brands to clean up their operations. However, it is difficult to coordinate a large number of consumers in such a way that results in all brands complying. There will always be brands that are willing to risk greenwashing because the expected gain is greater than the expected risk. That is why regulators must step in to stop this practice and define a standard that all companies must abide by in reporting their practices.

This is not an unheard of proposition. After all, we have many regulations on what companies can say about their products (think about the use of the word “organic” or even “milk”), and in what they report publicly (financial disclosures are a good example). A similar framework can be implemented in this context to ensure that what brands claim to do is actually what they are doing, supported by legitimate audits, described in a consistent manne, and penalized if found to be out of compliance. Such regulation is already being developed in Europe. That regulation can be used as a model in other countries.

So Let’s Make Some Progress Already

Ending greenwashing in fashion is an essential step towards achieving genuine sustainability in the industry. By raising awareness, demanding transparency, supporting brands that are truly committed to sustainable practices, and pushing for regulation, consumers, the fashion industry, and regulators can work together to combat greenwashing and foster a more responsible and sustainable future.