Greenwashing: Sustainability or Profitability?: Chapter 1: Role of the consumer in greenwashing


As a concern with increasing acclaim and broad media coverage, sustainability has developed into a trending lifestyle preference, in which consumers progressively make financial and ethical investments. The validity of products’ environmental benefits is therefore to be questioned and it should be established whether sustainable brand principles are to be found in truthful environmental ethics or in the profit from purchasers’ beliefs and values.

Primarily, the work estimates the role of global sustainability awareness and buyers’ environmental values in creating a profitable green market and examines the determination of neo-purchasers to invest in sustainable goods. The competition that this consumption trend creates among labels is then evaluated and it becomes clear that dishonest advertising practices are the essential postulates of greenwashing.

This essay further outlines greenwashing in the sphere of fashion and textiles production and retail, introducing misleading and deceptive approaches in environmentally preferable product advertising and offering examples of greenwash practiced by renowned brands. It additionally questions the effectiveness of popular green campaigns and investigates the cases of H&M and Patagonia, companies with a broadly recognized sustainable image.

Finally, the work analyses the effect of greenwashing on consumer trust in sustainable brands and the green market and further evaluates their reaction towards environmental claims and advertising. It then suggests methods of reducing the negative consequences of deceptive sustainable advertising and proposes that retailers, manufacturers and consumers are to adopt a responsible approach towards their production, advertising and purchasing practices.



Elitsa Dobreva

Greenwashing: Sustainability or Profitability?



BA (Hons) Performance Sportswear Design

Falmouth University




List of Figures ……………………………………..……………………………………………..….5

Introduction …………………………………………………………………………….…………….7

Chapter 1: Role of the consumer in greenwashing ………………………………………9

Chapter 2: Examples of Greenwashing Practices in the Fashion Industry ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………21

Chapter 3: Effects of Greenwashing on the Conscious Consumer

          and Sustainable Marketing, and Possible Ways of Its Cessation ……….…32

Conclusion ……………………………….……………………………………………………………38

Bibliography ……………………………………………………………..…………………..………40



List of Figures

Figure 1. WWD. 2017. Rana Plaza Factory Collapse. December 7. [online] Available at : [accessed November 20 2018]

Figure 2. BBC. 2018. Contamination of Citarum River. October 12 [online]. Available at: [accessed November 20 2018]

Figure 3. NATASHSA EARTH OBSERVATORY. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. 2014. In 2000 (left), Asia’s Aral Sea shrunk to a fraction of its 1960 extent (black line). In 2014 (right) the sea’s eastern lobe is completely dried up. October 2 [online]. Available at: [accessed November 20 2018]

Figure 4. FASHION REVOLUTION. 2017. Students at SoFa Design Institute, Philippines. [online]. Available at: [accessed October 12 2018]

Figure 5. THE ONLINE CITIZEN. 2017. A poster of The Conscious Festival 2017. September 28. [online]. Available at: [accessed October 3 2018]

Figure 6. RINALDI, Francesca Romana. 2011. A table with sustainability fairs in Europe. ‘Moda eco-sostenibile: opportunitá e rischi’, Les Cahiers Fashion Marketing, [accessed October 11 2018]

Figure 7.  VOGUE. 2018. H&M’s 2018 Conscious collection. September 2018. [online]. Available at: [accessed November 20 2018]

Figure 8. PATAGONIA. 2011. ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ Black Friday campaign. November 25. [online] Available at: [accessed November 20 2018]

Figure 9. GLOBAL ECO LABELLING. 2018. Original Green Seal logo. [online]. Available at: [accessed October 18 2018]


I have recognized sustainability as a topic of increasing importance for my practice as a sportswear design student, as it determines the prospective environment of my occupation. With regard to the potential progress of sustainable markets and consumer trust in their values I have identified deceptive green advertising as a profitable but largely disrespectful means towards brand and consumer efforts to establish environmentally less harmful consumption of fashion and textiles products. With reference to the growing number of conscious shoppers, corporate greenwash is a topic of great value that could inform well-intentioned purchasers and assist them in making aware and intelligent choices about the products they buy, correspondingly to their ethical values.

Chapter 1 examines the predominant causes for the emergence of greenwashing and then establishes environmental consciousness in purchases as a major determinant of sustainable image competition among brands.

Chapter 2 investigates large corporations’ sustainability campaigns and environmental claims and questions their validity, examining the essence of Terrachoice’s 2010 study of the ‘Sins of Greenwashing’ and providing examples for each of them within the fashion and textiles industry.

In Chapter 3 I will analyze the impact deceptive green advertising has on the conscious consumer and sustainable marketing, and suggest ways of limiting the consequences of greenwashing by proposing that responsibility should be recognized by all consumers, manufacturers and retailers.

My anticipation of this work is to establish the causes of greenwashing and identify examples of its practice in the fashion industry. Within this dissertation I am hoping to attain information on how to curtail its vast effects on consumer trust and sustainable markets.

Chapter 1: Role of the consumer in greenwashing

In this chapter I will discuss the reasons for the emergence of greenwashing and evaluate the growing importance of sustainability. In addition, I will examine guilt-free consumption as a main determinant for brand competition, studying Clifford G. Christians’ ‘Media ethics: cases and moral reasoning’. Lastly, I will clarify the essence of the newly developed term ‘greenwashing’.

The culmination of fast fashion and the globalization of sustainability awareness

Many events in the past four decades have caused people to consider their environmental footprint, as well as the impact that fast fashion consumption has on fair trade and working conditions in Third World countries. A peak in the consumer awareness followed the Rana Plaza factory collapse (Figure 1) on 23th April 2013 in Savar Upazila, Bangladesh, which caused the death of 1134 people and changed the consumer’s perception of clothing industry. The event and its extensive media response triggered a vast environmental shift, unveiling issues and facts undiscussed before.

The toxic water emissions, air pollution and the contamination of the Citarum River in Indonesia with mercury, lead, and arsenic (see Figure 2) caused by the textile industry subsequently became prominent topics of discussion. These were examined in Sara Spary’s article, ‘The ‘Huge’ Environmental Impact Of Fast Fashion Is About To Be Investigated By

Figure 1. WWD. 2017. Rana Plaza factory collapse.

Figure 2. BBC. 2018. Contamination of Citarum River.

MPs’, where she discusses the use of toxic chemicals in the fashion industry and its effect on climate change.

Purchasers took into consideration the threat their ill-informed consumption imposes on the existence of important natural sites, and the role of the fashion and textiles industry in causing irreversible extinctions. A strong example of the rapid effect clothing production has on the environment is the deficiency of water in the Aral Sea on Figure 3, once the fourth largest lake in the world and the main source of water for cotton production and former fishing villages on its coast. It is now on the verge of depletion and a source of toxins and carcinogens which negatively affect the neighbouring communities. (Michaels 2017)

To observe the reactions of consumers to another key aspect of sustainability, i.e. fair trade, a Fashion Revolution venture called ‘2 Euro T-Shirt – A Social Experiment’ was arranged, illustrating in detail buyers’ increasingly growing awareness of fast fashion’s impact. A rapid transformation is also to be noticed regarding social media’s influence on sustainability, taking into account organisations such as Fashion Revolution (113 000 posts used Fashion Revolution hashtags during April 2017, according to their website) and productions like ‘The true cost’ that have recently provoked a great social response among fast fashion consumers. (See Figure 4)

Figure 3. National Geographic. 2014. Aral Sea in 2000 and 2014

Figure 4. Fashion Revolution. 2017. Students at SoFa Design Institute, Philippines.

The realisation of consumers’ environmental footprint makes them increasingly conscious of sustainability

Realising the amount of waste and harm they create by overconsuming and polluting with packaging and merchandise waste, consumers become more aware of what occurs during and after the life of a product. The report for the British governmental Ethical Living for 2010 shows that 70% of UK buyers like shopping with companies who ‘visibly give something back to society’. In support, Scot Case, Vice President of Terrachoice, states that consumers are increasingly cautious of the sustainability status of their purchases, predominantly taking into consideration the health of their family members and the broader environmental impact. (Malley 2011). As a result of their consciousness and an expression of their values consumers are trying to reduce their environmental impact by shopping more sustainably, whereby, as believed by Marci Zaroff, an eco-fashion pioneer, sustainability is becoming a life choice. As opposed to just a fashion statement, it is seen as an opportunity for the conventional consumer to make a core difference by not only looking, but also feeling and doing good. (See Figure 5)

Similarly, Francesca Rinaldi, an author of the book ‘The Responsible Fashion Company: Integrating Ethics and Aesthetics in the Value Chain’, is convinced of sustainability’s growing globalization as an effect of the purchaser’s increasing consideration of both the environmental and social impact of merchandise. (Rinaldi and Testa 2015:3)(See Figure 6 tracing the increasing number of sustainability fairs across Europe.) It is thus certain that buying environmentally friendly products is a sign of expressing one’s values. As a relatively recent phenomenon, however, sustainable consumption relies on information provided by manufacturers. For this reason, the shopping choice of the ‘neo-consumer’ (Rinaldi and Testa 2015:3) is in the hands of present producers.

Figure 5. The Online Citizen. 2017. A poster of The Conscious Festival 2017.


Figure 6. Rinaldi. 2011. A table with sustainability fairs in Europe.

Environmental awareness encourages spending more on sustainability

Fashion brands observe the rapidly increasing green shopping tendency with trepidation. As purchasers’ awareness of sustainability grows they commit to changing their habitual lifestyle. This requires certain modifications in the manner of eating, dressing, consuming, as well as spending. As a result shoppers’ environmental sustainability awareness predisposes them to select green labels in the current fashion and textiles market. (Choi and Cheng 2015:36)

Ecologically aware buyers might notice that they are putting aside a larger budget for sustainable shopping. Consumers’ increasing sensibility to environmental issues is also to be acknowledged by manufacturers and retailers, who will price their products accordingly (Paulins and Hillery 2009:120). In agreement with the environmental shift, however, purchasers would not only spend more on the quality of sustainable products, but also invest in a certain quantity, so that ‘the purchase enables consumers to express their values through the market.’ (Hollins 2006:13)

In order to meet purchasers’ growing demand for guilt-free products, new companies arise that claim a level of sustainability. In her book, ‘Shaping Sustainable Fashion: Changing the Way We Make And Use Clothes’, Alison Gwilt notes that the market for sustainable clothing is expanding and so is its influence on fashion trends (Gwilt and Rissanen 2014:19), which suggests that, intentionally or not, the neo-consumer creates a new green market, causing high levels of competition among sustainable brands.

Shoppers’ determination to spend on sustainability creates brand competition

Realising the importance of being sustainable, companies generate various ways of outcompeting their opponents, differentiating their products and bettering their current brand recognition. (Koszewska 2001) Dauntingly, they tend to rely on marketing strategies, rather than product quality. This is why, to complement their appearance, companies engage in various environmental and charitable actions. These methods are illustrated in Paulins’ book, ‘Ethics in The Fashion Industry’, where he discusses the effect of companies’ participation in fair labour practices and their association with conscious endeavours in positive public perceptions and strengthening the image of their brand. (Paulins and Hillery 2009:156)

To reinforce the sustainable façade, marketers often include actions of environmental consciousness in their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reports, creating a favourable context that boosts positive consumer attitude towards the firm (Sen and Bahatttacharya 2001). Consumers seem to unconsciously embrace sustainable advertising and perceive it as a chance to express their own environmental concerns through various attributes, such as yellow bracelets, pink ribbons and FEED tote bags, which gain them recognition among their fellow environmentalists (Christians, Fackler, Richardson, Kreshel and Woods 2016:171).

It appears that the seal of sustainability itself becomes an aspiration, even more desirable than the completion of its meaning.

Customers’ dependency on insufficient information results in the rise of businesses with fake ecological values.

In reality, most big corporations base their commercial decisions on economic gain, profitable branding and new markets more readily than on sustainability and well-being. (Pernecky and Luck 2013:19) This often results in well-intentioned buyers being misled into purchasing products that do not deliver on their environmental promise (TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Inc. 2010). The difficulty comes when consumers are mostly unaware of the disingenuous ecological values of companies and evaluate a certain purchase as sustainable based on the information provided on the label. According to Scot Case, Vice President of Terrachoice, the benefits customers are trading their savings and values for are ‘invisible’ and in order to achieve sustainable consumption they need to be actively looking for products with a clear proof of the accuracy of their environmental claim (Malley 2011).

Moreover, fake green declarations are not the only approach that misleads guilt-free shoppers. Even if true, a number of brands claiming sustainability confuse the consumer with unimportant or irrelevant ecological informatio. Consumers are deceived by selective label terminology and made to believe that inconsequential changes are in fact major advances. (Christians, Fackler, Richardson, Kreshel and Woods 2016:166)

As can be concluded, the neo-purchaser’s lack of information and guidance, together with the market aspirations of emerging ecological brands are creating conditions for the rise of a new marketing trend called greenwashing.

Greenwashing and customer’s choice

As defined by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Inc. greenwashing is the practice of deluding purchasers with regard to the sustainability benefits of a product. The term appears in 1990 as a response to modern environmental consciousness (Jenner 2005) and it is related to the actions of greenwashing companies, however, it is important to note that, even though indirectly, the buyer is also a great determinant of greenwashing practices. ‘The major source of the problem in achieving a sustainable fashion industry is the consumer.’ (Gwilt and Rissanen 2011:21) In an interview with Bret Malley, Scot Case expresses his concern about the role of the buyer in greenwashing. As stated by the vice president of Terrachoice, if customers are allowing themselves to be greenwashed, it is as much their fault as it is the manufacturer’s fault (Malley 2011). Case further suggests that consumers need to be demanding better proof of the environmental benefits of their purchases. In support of Case, Bill McKibben, an environmental writer and activists, argues that if shopping green allows the consumer to think that they have already done enough to be sustainable this could cause further sustainability problems.

Conclusion: Environmentally aware individuals are the ones to spur the development of a market for sustainable consumption. In order for it to progress as expected, they need to be aware of the natural brand competition and information manipulation and demand proof of the environmental value they are paying for.

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