Updated: Jul 26
By Vivian Hendriksz
As consumers become increasingly aware of the environmental and social impact of the fashion industry, brands need to rethink how they communicate their sustainability efforts.
Greenwashing hinders the drive for true sustainable change in the fashion industry, as it creates a false sense of progress among brands, manufacturers, and consumers alike.
Therefore, European regulators are tightening legislation surrounding sustainability claims. Brands that are found guilty of greenwashing run the risk of getting a fine, which can run as high as 900.000 euros - sending a chock wage through the industry.
The new sustainability claims guidelines can give brands direction on how to ensure their sustainability claims are true, honest, and backed up by evidence. We dive deeper into how brands can follow these guidelines and communicate about sustainability safely and honestly.
No longer a trend, sustainability is a must for all fashion brands. As consumers become increasingly aware of the environmental and social impact of the fashion industry, brands need to rethink how they communicate their sustainable initiatives. However, with sustainability claims becoming more prominent among brands, the importance of managing expectations and engaging in transparent, honest communication with consumers only grows. With regulators tightening legislation surrounding sustainability claims, the need to recognize, avoid and prevent greenwashing is growing. But how can brands avoid the potential greenwash marketing trap while remaining true to their values? Is greenwashing always wrong, and what does the term even mean?
Here, we take a closer look at what greenwashing is, how to recognize it, and what brands can do to avoid it. We also look at how you can ensure your sustainability claims are true, honest, and in line with the guidelines that have been released in 2021 in both the Netherlands and the UK.
What is greenwashing exactly?
Initially coined in the 1980s, the term greenwashing was first used by environmentalist Jay Westerveld to describe environmental claims that were found to be false or misleading. Today, the term is widely used to describe when a brand's marketing or core values concerning sustainability do not align with their actual business practices. Through this tactic, brands can (un)knowingly make themselves and their products appear to be more sustainable than they genuinely are. More often than not, greenwashing tends to be the result of over-enthusiasm and a lack of knowledge of how to properly communicate sustainability claims.
Greenwashing ranges throughout the fashion industry, from subtle examples such as using a logo or certification to create the impression that a product is more sustainable than it really is to make broad, vague claims that revolve around 'buzz-words', like 'carbon-neutral', 'organic', 'eco-friendly' or 'responsible'. These words seemingly make a big statement but offer no practical or deeper meaning of what makes the product or its manufacturing process sustainable to consumers. Although the fashion industry lacks a universally agreed-upon definition of sustainability to this day, which gives brands the space to unintentionally fall into the greenwashing trap or take advantage of the vagueness surrounding it, brands should avoid trying to make themselves seem more sustainable than they truly are.
Why do we (un)intentionally greenwash and what is the problem?
With more consumers seeking out more sustainable products than ever before, the urge to promote a product's 'green credentials' to encourage sales seems logical. A YouGov survey from 2021 found that more than half (52%) of UK consumers based their purchasing decisions on a brand’s eco-credentials. Another study from McKinsey in 2019 noted that consumers want to support brands that are doing good in the world, with 66% willing to pay a premium for sustainable products. Following the outbreak of the global pandemic COVID-19, consumers are placing even more emphasis on social and environmental commitments. One survey found that 63% of consumers look at how brands promote sustainability as an important purchasing factor in 2021, with 70% remaining loyal to brands they know and trust during the crisis.
However, if any of the sustainability claims brands make are found to be false or misleading, then consumers' well-meaning purchasing decisions add up to nothing. If caught greenwashing, your brand's reputation can be at stake, leading consumers to question your credibility or even cause a public backlash and reduce consumers' trust in your brand. But the real consequences of greenwashing run further and more profound than misleading consumers. In a broader sense, greenwashing impairs any potential sustainable and real progress a brand could be making elsewhere in their business, while also creating a sense of doubt among other brands making similar sustainability claims. Greenwashing hinders the drive for true sustainable change in the fashion industry, as it creates a false sense of progress among brands, manufacturers, and consumers alike.
"59% of green claims are misleading or unsubstantiated. For some of the worst offenders, this is as much as 90%" - Greenwash.com
We as an industry are not yet doing enough to bring around more sustainable change, even though we are claiming to be doing a lot. For example, even though the number of products labeled or identified as 'sustainable', 'eco-friendly', or 'green' has grown at an exponential rate over the last few years, we can arguably say that the industry has not become more sustainable. Rather, we've seen an increase in emissions, a growing reliance on synthetic materials, and a gigantic growth in overconsumption. Paired with a growing waste crisis and increasing use of water, chemicals, and energy, the main problem with greenwashing is that it tricks us into a false sense of security that the industry is more sustainable than it really is.
But, thankfully, sustainable change is coming. There is still time to halt and counter the effects of greenwashing while making honest, open, and fair sustainability claims. By identifying potential greenwashing tactics and choosing different strategies, we can have a positive social and even environmental impact.
What are examples of greenwashing?
Brands from all segments of the industry have been accused of greenwashing, although much attention is placed on those in the fast-fashion and high-street segments. One example of greenwashing that brands tend to get called out for is when they launch a collection, or group several products together into a single 'sustainable' category. The products are lumped together based on a broad definition or a singular characteristic, such as made from recycled material or with better materials. However, as we know there is no single definition for sustainability, which makes this problematic. One brand that has been repeatedly accused of greenwashing is H&M. In 2020, H&M released a capsule collection with singer Billie Eilish that was "made from materials sourced in a more sustainable way", according to the website. However, H&M failed to explain or specify what the materials are and how they were sourced in a more sustainable way, which did not give an accurate portrayal of the product's true social and environmental impact.
Several consumers were quick to take this to heart and took to social media platforms to call the company on this, with one Twitter user stating:
Another user questioned:
While H&M has been transparent about its sustainability goals, aiming to become 100% circular and renewable, to use 100% renewable energy, and “to achieve a climate positive value chain by 2040,” it is evident that there remains a disconnect between what the company wants to achieve and its business model. With its core business focusing on fast, volume production that's designed for rapid obsolescence, thereby having a huge negative impact on the planet, no single 'conscious' or 'sustainable' collection can hide that. But the way it portrays some of its collections through marketing suggests otherwise.
Highlighting one part of the product's sustainability aspects, such as being made from organic cotton or made using less water, while not mentioning under what conditions, where the product was made and end-of-life is another example of greenwashing. Online retailer ASOS has been accused of greenwashing after stating that some of its clothes are designed to be remade, have a zero-waste design or are made from mono-materials to make it easier to recycle them. However, by making these blank statements, ASOS failed to provide consumers with a complete picture of its sustainability claims. Some of the products listed in the same collection, such as a pair of trousers, were not actually made from mono-materials, but a blend of polyester and nylon, which cannot be recycled at this time. By not sharing more information on the full lifecycle of the products, ASOS has unfortunately fallen into the greenwashing trap here and is being called out for it by consumers and experts alike.
Even brands that have sustainable values in place can unknowingly fall into the greenwashing trap. For example, US brand Everlane launched a campaign in 2018 under 'No New Plastics', which stated that it aimed to remove all virgin plastic from its supply chain by 2021 and only use recycled plastic for its synthetic clothing. By only using recycled bottles, the adverts from the brand suggest they are reducing plastic production. But the campaign does not take into account the full lifecycle of synthetic clothing, especially polyester, which cannot be recycled more than once. By failing to highlight or address the end of the lifecycle for its synthetic clothing, Everlane was accused of greenwashing and this campaign fell under the investigation of the US National Advertising Division.
Guidelines against greenwashing
It is evident that there is broader, systemic change needed to properly address and tackle the environmental and social issues at play in the fashion industry that can be undermined by greenwashing. The International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN), a global network of consumer protection authorities from more than 65 countries, is working to coordinate cross-border enforcement of greenwashing guidance. This can range in various forms, from soft enforcement such as voluntary compliance and warning letters to formal investigations with fines and court processes that can be considered criminal in some cases. In its most recent global review, the ICPEN found that of the 500 websites it surveyed, 40% “appeared to be using tactics that could be considered misleading and therefore potentially break consumer law.” But action is on its way.
In the UK, the Competition and Market Authority (CMA) published guidance on misleading sustainability claims and is consulting businesses and consumers to understand better how these claims are made and understood. The draft guidance included six points; sustainability claims must be truthful and accurate, claims must be clear and unambiguous, claims must not omit or hide relevant information, and claims must consider the full life cycle of the product or service. Over in the Netherlands, the Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) released “five rules of thumb” for sustainability claims in January 2021. The five rules explain how companies can ensure their sustainability claims are clear, correct, and not misleading to consumers. Following the launch of the rules, the ACM launched an investigation into the 170 largest local businesses in various sectors, including 70 fashion brands, at the beginning of May 2021. Those who are found guilty of greenwashing following their investigation run the risk of getting a fine, which can run as high as 900.000 euros per breach of a rule or a percentage of your company turnover - a substantial hit to any brand.
How can fashion brands prevent (accidental) greenwashing?
Perhaps one of the easiest ways for brands to prevent or avoid greenwashing is to follow the guidelines laid out by the CMA and ACM.
Be honest and transparent - no vague language
In addition to ensuring all your sustainability claims are truthful, accurate, and clear, be specific as to what the sustainable benefits of your product may be. Do not seek to mislead your consumer in any way with vague language or gimmick buzz-words - use clear language to communicate why your product is sustainable. For example, if a denim producer your brand works with introduces a new production process that uses 37% less water than before, state this percentage, as it is more specific than stating these jeans are sustainable. Even better, state what percentage of water was used before if possible to share the true water-saving process.
Use facts and statistics to support your sustainability claims
Be sure to support all your sustainability claims with facts.
State facts and share evidence wherever possible to support your sustainability claims, as this builds a sense of trust with your consumers. If you are unsure about how sustainable certain production processes are, then best be humble, open, and transparent about it. One brand which has benefited greatly from this is Ganni, who openly states they are not a sustainable brand but is actively working towards becoming the "most responsible version of themselves." Ganni openly shares their journey and struggles in their annual responsibility report, holding themselves accountable for reaching their own goals. In addition, by being open and honest about your brand's sustainability efforts and discussing them publicly, you are likely to garner more support and partnerships from others in the industry seeking to do the same.
Another way brands can prevent accidental greenwashing is by only making fair comparisons with their products and production methods to support their claims. It does not make sense to compare an organic cotton t-shirt with a polyester t-shirt, as it is clear one of them has less of an impact on the planet.
Lastly, make sure your sustainability claims are easy to understand and not confusing for consumers. Try to be as honest and straightforward with your sustainability claims as possible, but avoid ambiguous terms. Only use logos and certifications you are accredited for or have partnerships with; for example, only use the GOTS logo for GOTS-certified products. But do keep in mind that sustainable certifications are not the beginning and end-all when it comes to sustainability claims. Above all, if you are unsure of any sustainability claims your brand may make, seek out expert and legal advice to avoid any potential damage to your brand.
How should you seek to communicate about sustainability?
You should place honesty, straightforwardness, and humbleness at the center of all brand marketing to avoid greenwashing while openly communicating your sustainability efforts. The focus should be placed on developing a strong and 'holistic' strategy that includes actively working towards becoming more sustainable while blatantly sharing your progress and the point you are at now. Just talking about sustainability is no longer enough; you need to develop a sustainable strategy with solid points of action and communicate about it in an honest and engaging way. One example of clear communication positively impacting a brand's image is Canada Goose. When Canada Goose announced last year that they would be going fur-free, share prices increased 3% on the day and are expected to be worth 60 dollars each by the end of this year.
Some brands may shy away from sharing more information on how, where, and under what circumstances their products were produced, but it is vital if you want to paint a complete picture. At the same time, try to not solely rely on logos and certifications to tell the full story either. Clear, concise information is needed to support the story you are telling. Remember that sustainability is a journey for brands of all sizes and does not happen overnight. But when done correctly, it can positively impact brands in the most powerful way. One of the best examples of this is Patagonia's 2011 Black Friday ad in the New York Times, which called on consumers not to buy their jacket in protest against overconsumption. Though the ad was not successful in its intended purposes, as sales at Patagonia increased 30% following the campaign, it did raise global awareness for this increasingly growing issue.
In addition to ensuring your sustainability claims are true and based on facts, the words you use and how you use them are also key. Some buzz-words, like 'eco-friendly', 'green', and 'organic' may discourage or encourage consumer distrust, depending on how you use it and position it - but context is key. For brands seeking support in defining their sustainability strategy and clarifying their sustainability claims to reach their full potential, there is always help. The Sustainability Club is here to assist you in developing a solid sustainability strategy with viable, solid points of action and how to communicate about it in an honest and engaging way. We offer expert knowledge and support, so you can rest assured that your sustainability strategy, marketing, and claims are completely in line with the highest standards of responsibility as well as your wider brand vision for the future.
Written by Vivian Hendriksz, freelance copywriter and editor, commissioned by The Sustainability Club.