The Problem with Greenwashing

In recent years the term Greenwashing has been used more and more, with fast fashion brands like H&M launching their Conscious line. We quickly learned what it meant: Pretending the brand is turning all eco-friendly, and caring about their production and its impact on the environment. The focus here is on pretending. Because even though a tiny percentage of materials are from organic cotton, the rest of the production steps wouldn’t be altered or improved. When brands try to claim they work in an environmentally friendly way, but they really don’t - this is called greenwashing. 

white t-shirt with real flowers lying on top

Cambridge Dictionary defines greenwashing in the following way: “to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.”

We can’t help but wonder why this is still a thing, and why so many brands try to mislead us with their marketing without being held accountable for their wrong doing.


The term greenwashing is actually much older than we thought, it was invented by the environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986. He was staying in a South Pacific hotel and for the first time has seen the sign, that since then became so popular, asking the guests to reuse their towels to “save the environment”. At the same time this corporation was expanding rapidly, wasting so many other resources. This is when the term greenwashing came to him. (Vogue UK)


Greenwashing takes place across many different industries. Sometimes it is being used on purpose, to push sales to environmentally conscious consumers, sometimes by accident, because many companies are lacking the expertise of what is truly sustainable and what not. Research shows that Generation Z more than any other generation before focuses more on “social impacts, such as climate, LGBTQ, racial or social justice," says Sertac Yeltekin, the COO of Insitor Partners, a Singapore-based, socially focused venture capital fund (Euronews). Of course this doesn’t come unnoticed, with brands trying to jump on the environmentally-conscious-marketing waggon, to attract these buyers.  “The main issue we see is that greenwashing takes up valuable space in the fight against significant environmental issues like climate change, plastic ocean pollutions, air pollution and global species extinctions”, medium.com. 


The main issue here is, that there simply is no regulation on what is and what isn’t sustainable. Using slogans, like “more sustainable” or “environmentally friendly”, or simply putting a green label on the tags does not actually mean the brands have to guarantee anything.


It seems that at the moment, it is up to the consumer to do his research and find out whether a certain brand is sustainable enough. This, of course, is not such an easy task. New online tools emerge though, that help find information on sustainability of a brand, such as Project Cece, Ethical Made Easy and STAIY. Also there are many amazing brands that are very transparent in their approach to sustainability and therefore make it easy to see that their efforts to a more environmentally friendly way to do business are serious.


Another issue is that many brands don’t see that sustainability always includes intersectionality. “But a brand can’t really be “sustainable”—even by its own definition—if it isn’t thinking about intersectionality, defined as “an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet” by Leah Thomas. “It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected,” she wrote. “It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality.”, (Vogue.com)


A holistic approach towards this change seems harder for bigger corporations. Their supply chains are so long and confusing, that even though a brand commits to a better approach, it can never know for sure whether the subcontractors of their subcontractors will deliver as well.


At the moment it is the smaller brands, not dependent on investors, who embrace sustainability as a whole, and create new smart ways of working. It is through them, and through strict and unforgiving consumers that change is being made in the fashion world. What would contribute to a quicker change though is a regulator who defines and overlooks the sustainability resolutions and claims. There are talks from the EU on how to tackle the problems with the lack of regulations, and brands are aware of that. In fact, seeing the "risk" of introduction of those regulations (this is indeed how the brands call it), brands are teaming up to "help" create standards for more environmentally friendly production. Brands want to give scores for products on an index. The aim is to make it possible to compare to other brands, in the hope to look better in their performance. It is interesting to see how this will play out, and how high or low the bar will be set.

There will be a point where greenwashing will not be an option any more, and brands will be held accountable for their claims. Until then, it’s up to us to do our homework and study each of our potential purchases -  as our purchases are votes, so let’s vote for the right candidates.