The Perils of Greenwashing

September 15, 2020

40 years ago, Kermit the Frog spoke the truth – it’s not easy being green.

There are so many little choices we all make every day that add up to a massive, complicated picture of trying to be more conscious and respectful of the environment – trying to “be green.” And no, it’s not easy.

As if it wasn’t complicated enough already, there’s one more factor to consider when you’re trying to weigh your decisions: Greenwashing. It’s a term you may have heard before, but even if you don’t know what it is, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen greenwashing in action.

What is Greenwashing?

Investopedia defines greenwashing (also known as “green sheen”) as “the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound.“ When you see this definition in action, it looks like a company that expends more time and effort to make the claim of being “green” without actually making the changes necessary to substantiate that claim.

At best, greenwashing is unintentional, the result of a lack of knowledge coupled with a desire to do something about the environment. At its worst, the practice is actively deceptive and harmful. Either way, there are a few things you can watch for to see it when it’s happening.

How Do I Spot Greenwashing?

Once you’re aware of greenwashing, you have to pay close attention to both what a company is saying and how they’re saying it. Futerra, a design agency and sustainability consultancy, has developed a Greenwash Guide that offers a few pointers to get you started, including:

  • Fluffy Language – Phrases like “eco-friendly” have little actual meaning and are not backed up by verifiable data.
  • Faked Certifications – A “Certified” logo on a package looks great, but check to make sure that certification actually exists and that the product in question meets its requirements.
  • Jargon – An overwhelming amount of information and buzzwords which give the appearance of green practices but reads more like gobbledygook.
  • Green Labels and Imagery – There’s nothing wrong with choosing a green package or adding a leaf to a label, but make sure that the product in the pretty package is proven to be more environmentally responsible.
  • Lack of Evidence – A transparent, ethical company won’t just tell you they’re green, they’ll show you. Watch out for companies who downplay or obscure the evidence of their claims.

This all means that to be green, you do have to do your research. In the apparel industry, resources like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and their Higg Index can help you evaluate products, brands, and facilities to make better choices for both you and your environmentally-conscious customers.

Social media is also a powerful tool. Brands like Allmade and Cotopaxi have made transparency and sustainability a part of their story, and their social media presence is built on engaging with their customers to tell that story. Used wisely, your social media platforms become a conversation in which you connect with your customers and share your authentic experiences with them.

What Do I Do When I See Greenwashing?

Once you see a greenwasher in the wild, you have some choices to make.

The simplest choice, and often the most effective, is to vote with your dollars. Spending your money on companies who are transparent and honest about their practices is a way to support that way of doing business. The more you show that support, the more it will help those practices become the norm.

While watching for greenwashing in other companies, also be aware of it in how you communicate your business practices. Make sure you can back up your claims, and be transparent about the things you’re doing. Do your research and show your math whenever possible.

Like Kermit said, none of this is easy. Researching brands and learning more about product sustainability is work. But like most things that require extra effort, sustainability and doing business responsibly have their rewards. At the end of the day, when you can answer a customer’s question about where that t-shirt comes from and be confident and proud of the answer, the extra effort is worth it.

Greenwashing is one of many aspects of sustainability in the apparel industry. Join us on Friday, September 25th for our webcast to learn more about this important topic and to ask any questions you may have.

Have you seen instances of greenwashing? What did you do about it? Share your experience and join the conversation with us on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.