What is Greenwashing?
The term “greenwashing” was coined in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld to describe companies which grossly overstate the environmental or ethical benefits of their products and services. With “sustainability” becoming a popular buzzword and many brands wanting to join in on the sustainability movement, it is now important, more so than ever, to be able to distinguish between brands who are genuinely invested in furthering their sustainability efforts and those who are just greenwashing for profit.
Question The Term “Sustainable Materials”
A common way in which brands try to get away with greenwashing is by labelling the materials of their products simply as “sustainable material.” But what is this “sustainable material”? It’s important to note here that there is no such thing as a generic “sustainable material,” and instead, there are a multitude of different materials such as organic cotton, hemp, and linen, for example (Check out this article for a rundown on different sustainable materials and its qualities).
An example of this controversy is found in the “pleather debate,” where more and more brands are opting out of using real leather in favour of “pleather,” or “fake leather” made out of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a form of plastic. Although it is admirable that brands are taking initiative to eliminate animal-based products, it is important to ask: at what cost? For example, both polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride must undergo chemical processes to make them flexible enough to mimic leather. PVC is also made out of fossil fuels, and once thrown out, will take hundreds of years to biodegrade in a landfill.
This issue remains an ongoing debate, but in the meantime, don’t let brands fool you into thinking that all so-called “sustainable materials” are unquestionably good for the environment.
Check Their Commitment Levels
Another way to flag a brand that may be greenwashing is to check their commitment levels. Every year, usually around Earth Day, or when a brand makes headlines (both for good and bad reasons) for something related to sustainability, brands have a tendency to want to up their sustainability efforts. Some examples of this include including a “free” eco-bag with your purchase, or making a single “sustainable line” for the season. However, a “sustainable line” or eco-bag gift wouldn’t really be making that big of an impact if everything else sold by the brand was fast fashion. Of course, this could also just mean that the brand is just getting started on their sustainability efforts. There are two sides to a coin.
A great litmus test for this is checking their commitment levels for the long run. What initiatives are they planning for the next season? How are they going to achieve these goals? These are some things to look out for in terms of commitment to sustainability efforts. They key question here is: are they truly trying to innovate and contribute to environmental sustainability, or are they merely trying to sell you more stuff?
Bonus: Check if they are advocates of intersectionality. Do they have inclusive sizing? Do they feature women of colour in their advertisements? Awareness of social issues other than anything immediately connected to environmental sustainability is usually a great indicator that the brand is committed to making a change in the long run.
Get A Second Opinion
Brands that greenwash have a tendency to believe that their customers will take their words at face value. Something that you can do to avoid doing this is to get a third-party’s opinions on a brand’s efforts to contribute to the sustainability movement. Some great websites that evaluate these brands include Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index and Good on You. Checking for customer reviews outside of what is posted on the brand’s website would also be a good way to get other’s opinions on the brand.
Check For Transparency
On that note, check how transparent the brand is when it comes to their production. An easy way to do this is to check out their online journal or blog if they have one. Some questions you should be asking include: how does the brand break down its sustainability efforts for new customers? Is the breakdown thorough and easy to read? Usually, fluffy vocabulary or incoherently big words signal greenwashing and purposeful deception.
Another red flag would be lack of communication with customers. Chances are, if a brand were to be greenwashing, there will be customer backlash. Check if there been any setbacks or mistakes that they’ve made in the past. If so, how have the brand dealt with customer criticism? A truly green brand should be transparent on all aspects of their business– whether it be their sustainability efforts or customer complaints they have received in the past.
Check Their Labor Policies
Finally, check labor policies for these brands. Yes, environmental sustainability and human rights are two distinct social issues. However, labor rights are a significant part of “greenwashing,” because a large component of is greenwashing pertains to brands claiming that their clothes are made ethically. Again, this goes back to the concept of intersectionality. Is a brand truly sustainable if its “sustainability” is at the expense of human rights?
Distinguishing whether a brand is truly investing in making itself better in terms of environmental impact and sustainability, and whether they’re merely making environmentalism a marketing ploy isn’t too hard. But being able to do so is vital to making sure that your dollar goes towards the right cause.