Greenwashing: Sustainability or Profitability?: Chapter 2: Examples of Greenwashing Practices In the Fashion Industry

In this chapter I will introduce the misleading and deceptive approaches employed by greenwashing companies, evaluate big businesses’ intentions and question the practical results of their sustainability campaigns. I will also examine the essence of the ‘Sins of Greenwashing’ and then provide examples of their adoption by large clothing brands in their advertising and business operations.

Greenwashing via misleading information: examples in the fashion industry

Due to insufficient product information and lack of customer awareness greenwashing efforts seem to thrive. As stated by Scot Case, falsely sustainable advertising constitutes 98% of more than a thousand environmental claims examined in a 2007 Terrachoice study, where most of them were estimated as simply exaggerated environmental qualities. As much as a quarter of the statements, however, form entirely false claims with the sole purpose of triggering a purchase.

One of greenwashing’s common practices is described by Terrachoice as the ‘Sin of Vagueness’ and is committed by every claim that is so broadly defined that its authentic meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the target customer. Terms frequently used in this case include ‘eco-friendly’, ‘sustainable’, ‘recyclable’, ‘biodegradable’, ‘cruelty-free’, and ‘nontoxic’, which Terrachoice describes as ‘utterly meaningless without elaboration.’ Claims such as ‘chemical-free’ and ‘all natural’ are also considered greenwashing, since no substance is actually free of chemicals (water and all products contain chemicals), just as well as arsenic, uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde are natural. It could be concluded therefore that none of the greenwashing product descriptions mentioned above bears any informative meaning to the consumer. In this respect, Patagonia president and CEO, Rose Marcario, expressed her concern with the number of corporations, journalists and practitioners applying such terms to products and services without any clear understanding of their significance. (Michaels 2017)

H&M’s recycling scheme is also seen by Oliver Blach, a British author and freelance writer, as a supreme example of big brands’ insubstantial claims. As stated by Blach ‘the promise of closed-loop textile recycling currently remains exactly that: a promise’ (Blach 2013), considering the lack of any publically disclosed outcomes of the brand’s campaigns.

Another greenwashing practice one can identify is the so called ‘Sin of Irrelevance’. It is considered to be informatively misleading and is expressed in making an environmental claim that, although truthful, is unimportant for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. (Terrechoice 2010) One of the most common cases of irrelevant claims concerns the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) – a contributor to ozone depletion, in a variety of products, including clothing. Considering that the use of CFCs has been legally banned for more than 30 years, labels claiming ‘CFC-free’ could be considered utterly irrelevant. In other cases in textile marketing, for instance, labels could declare that a product is ‘organic’, which, by definition, means carbon-based. In that sense, unless it is coupled with ‘certified’, this claim would be viewed as immaterial.

The label ‘organic’ or ‘green’ could also be placed on products, the entire category of which is of questionable environmental value. These occurrences illustrate the ‘Sin of Lesser of Two Evils’. An example of this practice are the ‘organic’ cigarettes that, even though more environmentally friendly, are just as harmful as the regular ones. This approach is used by brands to ‘greenify something that didn’t use to be green’ (Thomas 2009) and is heavily incorporated within the fashion and textiles industry. A recent example is the ‘Better Cotton Initiative’ – a program many responsible clothing brands have signed onto. Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario, however, considers its standards rather low and is of the opinion that, despite containing significant arrangements, the initiative encourages harmful practices such as the use of synthetic pesticides and GMO seeds. As believed by the company’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, BCI has expanded considerably further than appropriate, joining large companies like Nike. Regardless of being cultivated without formaldehyde, the quantity of the cotton produced needs to be considered and so what companies should be required to do is not process any organic cotton.

Instead, with the use of green vocabulary and imagery, the fashion and textiles industry appeals to conscious consumers, promoting supposedly ‘green’ purchases and encouraging the consumption of products with questionable ethical values.

Greenwashing via fraud

If misleading practices in greenwashing could be considered a disruption of the consumer’s right of choosing a product in accordance with their values, then examples of outright fraud in product advertising could be deemed as simply unacceptable.

A common deceptive practice of greenwashing is the ‘Sin of No Proof’, represented by ecological statements that ‘cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information, or by a reliable third-party certification’. (Terrachoice 2010) A typical example from one’s Saturday shopping bag would include the light bulb, which denotes energy efficiency without any proof of that statement on the packaging or another easily accessible source.

In the fast fashion industry one can observe the sin of no proof in some of Primark’s sustainability claims seen on their website, as well as publically expressed by the company’s spokesmen. One of them reassured Cornish consumers of the brand’s strict code of conduct, which ‘sets out the core principles regarding working conditions, including working hours, fair wages and workers’ rights’, without adding any further comment or explication. In addition, Libby Annat, Controller of ethical Trade & Sustainability for Primark, stated in Primark’s profile for the 2012 Clean Clothes Campaign Wage Survey that the company ‘fully recognize the importance of FOA as an enabling right for workers to achieve a living wage‘. Regardless of her declaration, when demanded clarification she merely reproduced her answer. Although it is fashion retail researchers’ common view that clear explanations of environmental impact on labels will aid in product evaluation (Choi and Cheng 2015:36), most big brands do not seem to be inclined to provide their customers with easily accessible clarification, judging by Primark’s ‘transparency policy’.(Primark’s website)

In other cases deceptive greenwashing is practiced through the ‘Sin of Fibbing’ – it is committed by making ecological statements that are simply false. On top of that a number of companies apply appellations and imagery to their advertising that ‘give the impression of a third-party endorsement where no endorsement exists’. (Terrachoice 2010) For instance, in 2015 FTC (Federal Trade Commission) fined Nordstorm, J.C. Penney and two other retailers a total of $1.3 million for presenting heavily processed rayon items as biodegradable bamboo that had been grown more sustainably than conventional cotton. In January 2010 the organization sent letters to 78 textile companies with a warning that they may be breaking the law by deceptively advertising products as bamboo. (Dahl 2010)

Shameless as they seem, according to the 2007 Terrachoice brand research, direct lies make up only ¼ of greenwashing. The most frequently used practice appears to be the ‘Sin of the Hidden Trade-off’, committed by 57% of greenwashing companies. Quite naturally, it is also the most common method used by fashion and textiles brands.

Evaluation of the sin of the hidden trade-off in the fashion industry

The most common approach in greenwashing uses claims that suggest a product is sustainable, based on a single environmental attribute, such as recyclable cardboard packaging, without providing information on more significant ecological issues like energy, global warming, and water.

Despite being more environmentally responsible than other brands, big corporations appear to be yet far from sustainable, bearing in mind the amount of waste and pollution they generate. In order to be such, a company must take into consideration its overall impact, which the responsible brand rarely regards in its practices. A number of labels present themselves as sustainable, being actually simply responsible. In a common case businesses supply fabrics identified as ‘green’, considering the use of sustainable materials as a ‘quick fix’ – an effortless way to appear environmentally-friendly, without incorporating ethical approaches into their business operations. (Gordon and Hill 2015:61) Another routinely used approach is the adoption of the ‘ecology look’, whereby environmental concern is expressed through choice graphics and prints, as well as through fabrics that appear ‘natural’ or ‘unprocessed’ (Gordon and Hill 2015:61).

The concept of visibly pursuing an ecological appearance by introducing minor changes that do not affect business practices is described by Bill McKibben, an environmental writer and activist, as irresponsible and nonsensical:

The idea that because your shopping mall has a bunch of compact florescent lightbulbs and solar panels on the roof and it’s therefore ecological is silly. It’s what happens inside– it’s a church, devoted to consumption […]’

Case study 1: H&M

One of the most controversial and broadly discussed fast fashion companies, H&M, is a particularly relevant example of a brand committing the sin of the hidden trade-off. To begin with, it has introduced a number of ‘green’ campaigns (’Our Responsibility’, advertising H&M’s fair trade and code of conduct; ‘Bring it on’, encouraging recycling), which makes H&M widely recognized as an eco-friendly business.

In addition, the brand’s recent marketing campaign highlights its sustainable apparel collection called ‘Conscious’ (See Figure 7), which is built on particular environmental consumer obligations, from textile sourcing to factory working conditions. (Choi and Cheng 2015:37) For that reason it should be noted that H&M has introduced some truly sustainable decisions to the market, most recently exemplified by their recycled cashmere

Figure 7. Vogue. 2018. H&M 2018 Conscious collection.

and polyester garments. Cecilia Brännsten, H&M group environmental sustainability manager, explains that 35% of the materials the brand uses are organic, recycled or sustainably-sourced and reveals the company’s goals to use 100% sustainably-sourced materials by 2030. (Newbold 2018). Taking into consideration the brand’s declarations of being a truly sustainable label, however, the question is to be asked if merely announcing their ‘goals’ and ‘aims’ to the broad public is still appropriate for a global corporation with a genuine belief in the strength of its environmental practices.

In fact, unsubstantial declarations and environmental promises appear to be increasingly common in brand advertising campaigns. Considering that sustainability is critical to fast-fashion retailers, leading companies like H&M and UNIQLO have stated in their CSR reports that they are adopting valuable environmental practices and even launching an initiative of recycling used garments (Choi and Cheng 2015:184).

Blach describes H&M’s recycling scheme as a ‘step in the right direction’, but argues that as long as the retailer’s focus is on the profit it won’t save the planet. Despite the ambitious water management and recycling plans, on the account of selling 550m items per year and the ambition to expand, it is questionable if the Swedish retailer is recognizing a great significance in its environmental impact. (Blach 2013). Essentially, although well-intentioned, the Conscious collection is inherently paradoxical in comparison with H&M’s fast fashion approach in global retail and its overall environmental impact. (Fernandez 2013).

If H&M is to truly represent their ethics as a responsible fashion brand with claims of promoting and practicing sustainability, it must overcome the common ‘out-with-the-old-and-in-with-the-new’ attitude (Blach 2013). However profitable, this approach is costing the environment irreversible losses.

Case study 2: Patagonia

Patagonia, a distinguished outdoors brand, has made a step further as a responsible clothing retailer. It should certainly be noted that the label has achieved a higher sustainable acknowledgement among other expanding brands, due to their transparency policy.

Their ‘Footprint Chronicles’, for instance, have accomplished a lot through informing customers about the story of their products, inclusively revealing the use of toxic chemicals on some of their jackets. The accessibility of this information heavily contributed to the brand’s clarity and managed to trigger environmental discussions. As also noted by Jill Dumain, Director of Environmental Strategy for Patagonia, ‘clear is the new clever’. Quite naturally, Patagonia’s transparency policy serves as quality advertising, increasing the brand’s sales and extending the customer base, which is the ultimate goal of any clothing company, as stated by the label’s marketing director, Christina Speed. She argues however, that consumption should be drastically decreased, as promoted by Patagonia’s ‘Buy Less’ campaign (Figure 8), which, on the other hand, had the opposite effect on sales, rapidly increasing the company’s revenue by 40%. (Schwartz 2011). Its authenticity is therefore questionable, bearing in mind that Patagonia’s very existence relies on consumption, which consequently increases waste and emissions. Paradoxically, as an eco-conscious company, Patagonia is just as responsible as other clothing retailers for making their latest products more covetable than the already existing ones. (Schwartz 2011). Green as it is, the brand is

Figure 8. Patagonia. 2011. ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ Black Friday campaign.

in pursuit of accomplishing two conflicting goals – sustaining a profitable company denouncing materialism and consumerism.

Conclusion: Conscious consumption and its increasing demand are positioning large companies in a constant arms-race for sustainability. Using misleading and deceptive approaches of greenwashing, brands appeal to the guilt-free shopper to sustain a habitual fast fashion consumption. But in their endeavor to rapidly generate profit, clothing brands have established fashion as the second most polluting industry on the planet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *