The Rise of ‘Greenwashing’

Words by Chloe Chapman

Design by Sian Hopkins

The prominent rise of ‘Greenwashing’ in our culture emerges in line with societal pressures for companies to act on the climate emergency. Greenwashing is the concept in which companies promote and advertise intentionally false or misleading information about their sustainability practices or products, in order to try and appear more environmentally friendly and responsive to the climate crisis. This is often done from a PR angle and is done in an attempt to hide the details of their practices which are excessively damaging to the environment. The concept of greenwashing isn’t a new trend and, according to The Guardian, dates back to the 1980s ‘to describe outrageous corporate environmental claims’ that were infiltrating the media at the time. Now in 2021, the tactic of greenwashing is prevalent across all industries and companies as environmental practices gain more momentum and discussion in popular media and culture. For the context of this article, it is most noticeable in the clothing industry. 

The clothing industry has been long criticised for its fast fashion production style where companies prioritise and operate solely to produce cheap, low-cost garments that are quickly produced in order to keep up with current trends and there is no thought given towards the garment workers’ rights or sustainable practices. As such, the data Business Insider collected about fast fashion is increasingly worrying due to the industries greenwashing practices. They found that fast fashion production produces 10% of total global carbon emissions, while 85% of all textiles are sent to landfill each year, often sending thousands more plastics into our oceans. Even worse, cheap synthetic textiles, like polyester and nylon, release an estimated 500,000 tons of microplastics into our water supply when they’re washed, which ultimately end up in our oceans damaging their ecosystems more. It’s further estimated that microplastics actually compose up to 31% of all plastic pollution in the ocean. The industry’s attitude towards these clearly problematic and damaging production cycles, is to misinform and allude to consumers that they are making environmental pledges or promising to use more sustainable production, when they’re not addressing the overall issue – plastics and encouraging overconsumption. This is clearly greenwashing.  

H&M and Zara have been at the forefront for the criticisms of greenwashing tactics to mislead the public into believing they are purchasing more sustainable and eco-friendly products. Both clothing brands use fast fashion to produce their garments in order to be constantly releasing edits for quick trends. In fact, Zara has an exceptionally quick design to retail production style, consisting of only 5 weeks and releases more than 20 collections a year. H&M have a reportedly more varied production cycle, but still produce an excessive 16 collections a year. The problem for both Zara and H&M, is that instead of addressing the problems associated with producing clothes in this way, they instead both produce lines that claim they’re sustainable – ‘Join Life’, for Zara, and H&M ‘Conscious’. On the respective websites, both companies make a lot of environmental commitments and pledges but fail to truly disclose the details and evidence of how they are achieving this. The main issue with both brands is their lack of transparency in line with the claims they are making about being more sustainable. This evidence from the high number of items on their websites and instore that still use water intensive processes and synthetic plastic textiles. While they have considerably improved their evidence tracing in recent years, there is still a lot of work to be done in order to consider the brands sustainable and as such, their current processes are evidence of greenwashing to mislead consumers to believe they’re already sustainable when they’re not. Of course, these efforts are considerably better than brands like BoohooPretty Little Thing and Shein, who have little to no sustainable or environmental pledges and practices, but they need still need to reduce their greenwashing advertising techniques. 

The issue with greenwashing ultimately leads to the consumer decision to try and live more sustainably in the response to efforts to resolve the climate crisis. While individual actions are of course important, practices of greenwashing mislead consumers to believe they are supporting a more sustainable lifestyle while in actual fact they’re not. Therefore, the responsibility is on brands to drastically improve the fashion industry’s relationship with the environment and to promote slower and more sustainable fashion culture. However, on a consumer level there is still a lot you can do to support a more environmentally friendly relationship with products. A simple trick is to really consider overconsumption habits and question whether you truly need a new item of clothing, or can you repurpose something you already own. Better yet, there are hundreds of more sustainable brands that support slow fashion so consider paying a little extra to receive a more long-lasting item. Finally, there are also swapping services out there that allow you to exchange your clothes with other people to gain more sustainable access to new styles.