Greenwashing 101

How to Spot It, How to Avoid It, How to Change It

It’s Profitable to be “Woke,” but Who is Really Walking the Walk?

Greenwashing. Also known as “green sheen,” greenwashing refers to when companies market themselves as being sustainable, low-waste, eco-friendly, or just generally green. This video by Hasan Minhaj does an excellent job of pointing out two prominent examples of companies who are claiming to be green, but who are really poisoning the environment, using sweatshops and other unfair practices, and lying to consumers: H&M and Zara.

H&M and Zara are the two leaders of the fast fashion industry. They are large, international chains who have both made sustainability pledges in one form or another, which is great, right? Wrong. The Norwegian Consumer Advisory Board investigated H&M’s claims, and told Fast Company that “H&M is ‘misleading’ consumers by failing to provide adequate detail about why their garments are less polluting than other garments.” H&M and Zara claim things like their t-shirts are made with “ecologically grown cotton,” “recycled materials,” or that jackets are made with “the most sustainably produced polyurethane,” when in actuality “ecologically grown cotton” is not refering to any kind of standardized metric, only the tag on the garment is made of recycled materials, and there is no such thing as “sustainably produced” polyurethane (it’s just oil and plastic!).

It can be difficult to judge a company’s true sustainablility, because we don’t really have a ton of across-the-board ways to judge it. There’s a difference in using organic cotton vs non-organic cotton vs recycled synthetics (hint: one decomposes quickly, one veeery slowly, and one never will). There are no industry standards, especially in fashion for what sustainable means, but there is a rapidly growing demand for more transparency in “sustainability reporting.” Harvard Business Review proposed a scorecard which places emphasis on the “Triple Bottom Line” (a phrase first coined by sustainability expert John Elkington in 1994) in 2015. The TBL is now a major part of the way a lot of companies self-monitor and report, and is a theory that states that companies should focus on more than THE bottom line (profit), and should view their environmental and social impacts as just as important as their profit margins. This may seem like a no-brainer, especially to anyone who has studied business recently, but under capitalism, as it is traditionally defined, a business has no responsibility to anyone except stakeholders (and they’ve only been considered in that way since the 70’s). The idea that there is more to a company’s value and merit than its ability to turn a profit is somewhat revolutionary (read Concious Capitalism by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and Rajendra Sisodia, which came out in 2013 and is seens as kind of mind-boggling to some capitalist business scholars).

So we’ve defined greenwashing and identified two offenders, but how do we avoid greenwashing? The simple answer is don’t shop at places who greenwash, but in reality, it so much more complex than that. There are so many behemoth companies that own so many smaller companies that it is almost impossible to find an actually sustainable company. Not everyone has the time or resources to spend hours researching sustainable companies, so I’ve compiled a list of some basic indicators of a company’s sustainability:

Transparency: A transparent company will provide easily accessible information about its labor practices, supply chain, spending, details about the company’s carbon footprint, and/or what their products are made of. Allbirds is a good example of material transparency.

Certifications: There are some certifications that are pretty good indicators of a company’s sustainability:

  • Fairtrade Certifcation: To recieve this certification, a company must meet the some standards:
    • Fair Trade Premiums: Workers decide democratically how to allocate additional funds
    • Worker Voice: Workers recieve training on their rights and have confidential channels to report grievances or complaints, both within and outside the facility
    • Women’s Rights: Specific provisions to protect women’s rights, prevent sexual harassment, and promote equal pay are in place.
  • Global Organic Textile Standard: Textiles are composed of a minimum 70% organic fibers and meets a certain standard of “energy and water resources and their consumption per kg of textile output, target goals and procedures to reduce energy and water consumption per kg of textile output.” GOTS also keeps a public database of producers, retailers, and brands that contains information on their GOTS standing, material composition, and more.
  • There are countless other ceritifications, here are 25 other common ones.

Packaging: The packaging a product comes in can tell you a lot about the company’s commitment ot sustainability. If a company claims sustainability or a low-waste status but packages its products in non-recyclable, wasteful, or single use packaging, that tells you that they are not really sustainable.

How do we change the culture? How do we make it clear that greenwashing is not acceptable and is not “woke?” For starters, don’t shop at companies that are known for greenwashing. The only real power the consumer has under capitalism is in where they choose to spend their money. Which brings us to the second way to stop greenwashing, which is being loud and calling it out. One person boycotting a store won’t do anything, but a few thousand people boycotting a store does. Thirdly, and connected to the second one, get politically active! Vote for and donate to candidates who are solid on issues regarding corporations and their environmental impact, and lobby for changes at any level you can, whether national or local. Lastly, you should try to support companies that are actually sustainable, whether by shopping there or just sharing information about them. They are the ones fighting an uphill battle against giants, and if we want to move towards a zero-waste, sustainable future, we have to help out those who are also trying to get there.

This is obviously not a comprehensive resource on this topic. For information, I would recommend checking out one of my favorite blogs, GoingZeroWaste. Kathryn makes a lot of good points in her article about greenwashing and points out a lot of common tricks and misconceptions.

Thank you for reading this post, and please don’t forget to check out my other posts! Follow me to stay updated on what I’m researching, learning about, trying in my journey to go zero-waste!


Sources

(In the order that they appear in the post)

Patriot Act. “The Ugly Truth Of Fast Fashion | Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj | Netflix.” YouTube, Netflix, 25 Nov. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xGF3ObOBbac.

Segran, Elizabeth. “H&M, Zara, and Other Fashion Brands Are Tricking Shoppers with Vague Sustainability Claims.” Fast Company, Fast Company, 8 Aug. 2019, http://www.fastcompany.com/90385370/hm-zara-and-other-fashion-brands-are-tricking-consumers-with-vague-sustainability-claims.

Thomas, Martin, and Mark W. McElroy. “A Better Scorecard for Your Company’s Sustainability Efforts.” Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business School, 25 Oct. 2017, hbr.org/2015/12/a-better-scorecard-for-your-companys-sustainability-efforts.

Kenton, Will. “How There Can Be Three Bottom Lines.” Investopedia, Investopedia, 5 Feb. 2020, http://www.investopedia.com/terms/t/triple-bottom-line.asp#:~:text=The triple bottom line (TBL) is a framework or theory,, people, and the planet.

“Our Materials – Wool.” Allbirds, http://www.allbirds.com/pages/our-materials-wool.

Flynn, Erin. “4 Ways To Know If A Company Is Ethical & Sustainable.” Cladwell, Cladwell, 25 Jan. 2016, cladwell.com/blog/2016/1/22/4-ways-to-know-if-a-company-is-ethical-sustainable.

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