Greenwashing and how to recognise it

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It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that many companies and institutions will resort to deceitful messaging if they can make money from it. Dirty tactics like green or ethical washing can cause confusion for consumers who want to make better purchasing decisions, but with a bit of critical thinking, we can negotiate our way around it. Here’s how.

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing, or ethical washing, is when deceptive and misleading tactics are used to invoke connotations of goodness. Wordplay examples include: transparent, ethical, sustainable, cruelty-free, green, eco, conscious, responsible...you get the idea. Design examples include packaging that looks recycled (but isn’t), colours that seem “natural,” or images that resemble certification logos, but are in fact just pretty pictures. Dodgy, to say the least.

Greenwashing can also occur when a brand claims a garment is made from recycled or eco materials, but the percentage used is very low. Or when a brand with poor eco-ethical production standards releases a collection of "sustainable" garments, while the rest of the brand's clothing is made with little regard to social or environmental justice. 

Just the other week American fashion label, Everlane, was in the news for failing to live up to its ethical marketing spin, and H&M is also notorious for not complying with its environmental statement or ethical hype. Sadly, these are not unique examples. It’s just that these brands are profitable enough to make reporting on their shortcomings worthwhile. 

Then there are the institutions who sign up to anti-slavery agreements or make a song and dance about their “commitment” to ethics, however, if you scratch the surface on their claims, you’ll see they’ve done nothing more than a box-ticking exercise. This is all greenwashing.

Is fashion the only industry to greenwash?

Unfortunately, greenwashing occurs in many industries. Whether it's a marketing tactic or a box-ticking exercise, the world is rife with it.

With the climate crisis gaining momentum, all kinds of companies are being urged to sign up to the UN's sustainability goals, but once signed up; they don't appear to do anything about them.

Financial institutions will claim to have accounts or superannuation funds that don't invest in fossil fuels or other damaging industries. Read the fine print, and you will find that they actually have a materiality threshold. This means they will invest in a company that profits from fossil fuels, for example, so long as those profits are no more than a certain percentage (let’s use 10% as an example). If a superannuation portfolio has multiple companies deriving 10% of profits from an industry that a customer wants to avoid: damage is being caused, and the customer is being misled.

In fact, Etiko has been asked to provide many big organisations and institutions with uniforms or merchandise over the years, but when it came to the crunch, almost all chose to go with cheaper suppliers. They voted for cost over quality, ethics and sustainable materials. Yet almost every single one of those companies had an environmental and ethical policy.

Yes, it can take longer for large organisations to instigate procurement changes despite their ethical and environmental policies. However, we have found that more often the obstacle is people, not time. One dedicated and determined person can create change, fast. It’s just difficult to get the right person in the right job at the right time.

How to avoid greenwashing?

In two words, the answer is: be critical

Question the statements made by big and small companies, and always look for more information. Read the fine print, do your homework, and try to identify the legitimate certification schemes to make your selection process easier. Once you know which certification schemes you can trust, like B Corporation and Fairtrade, it's much easier to make consumer decisions.

If you have any go-to sources that help to debunk greenwashing, share them in our comments below. Together, our community can help shed light on shady tactics, call it out to encourage the change and support brands doing the right thing.

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