You’re walking through a grocery store with a full basket weighing down your arm. You remember that you’re out of detergent, so you turn down that aisle before you leave the store. The options stretch out on shelves before you. Brightly colored jugs look garish under the fluorescent lighting. In a prominent shelf location, an attractive package catches your eye. A translucent bottle with subtle branding in earthy tones advertises “natural detergent,” “free from harmful chemicals and dyes,” and “environmentally friendly.” The back of the bottle has a little cartoon drawing of planet earth. In a rush, you grab that detergent because it seems like the best of the lot and hurry to check out.

You’re shopping online for jeans, late at night, scrolling on your phone. You prefer to shop secondhand where you can, but you need another pair to wear for work and the clock is ticking. You find yourself on the website of a large clothing chain. You don’t feel great about the idea of buying from this company, but you keep scrolling. You see a tab which directs you to a line produced by this same large clothing manufacturing. The sleek branding looks inviting and evokes a boutique aesthetic. The colors green and blue subliminally assure you that the brand is really doing better for our planet. The description promises “earth friendly” clothing. You’re tired and don’t have time to think about it, so you add it to your cart and move along.

Cue the 80s sitcom music. What we’ve just seen in these opening scenes are two of the many ways in which greenwashing has wormed its insidious way into consumer culture. This predatory practice relies on manipulation and obfuscation. Greenwashing describes the use of marketing and branding to convey a false impression or deliver misleading information with the aim to deceive the public into considering the brand’s missions, goals, and practices to be environmentally friendly. The so-called “green sheen” abounds in cosmetic and personal care products, cleaning and household solutions, and clothing, among other industries. The two examples I highlighted at the beginning of this post are just a sample of the many ways in which consumers might be confronted with greenwashing in the typical day.

Greenwashed products frequently include the color green, images of earth, unsubstantiated claims, and prominently placed buzzwords. The examples of this practice are maddening. Companies might mark their product as “all natural,” ignoring the fact that natural does not mean safe or effective. There is no real guidance or regulation regarding the use of various terms such as “earth friendly” “earth safe” “better for the planet” etc. This lack of oversight allows brands to appeal to the instinct of the 64% of consumers who say they would prefer to purchase an environmentally friendly product, without putting in any effort into changing or improving the product. Use of brown, green, and muted tones demarcates these greenwashed products from their garish companions on shelves. 

Though this practice abounds in many industries, fast fashion companies have developed a number of methods to convey the impression that the clothing they produce is in some way more earth friendly:

Insignificant distinction

If you see a brand touting “organic cotton” or “sustainably grown fiber” you are probably seeing what some experts would call an insignificant distinction. Organic cotton clothing could perhaps be better than non organic cotton clothing (the definition of organic and the issues of branding with this term are a separate post all together.). However, the issue of organic versus non organic is really a distraction from the massive waste produced by the textile industry. Regardless of their organic nature, they are still new clothes, produced in a system which exploits underpaid workers and pollutes the planet. 

Vague Language:

Due to a dearth of regulation regarding the use of terms which are commonly used in greenwashing, it is easy for companies to slap essentially meaningless labels on products. “Earth friendly,” “ecofriendly,” “better for the planet,” “green,” etc all sound great and appeal to consumers, without any real sense of what these terms mean. 

Unsubstantiated claims:

In addition to the unspecific branding found on many greenwashed products, it may also include claims like “uses less water to produce,” “reduced footprint,” “certified by ____ group.” These claims, which frequently do not include specific statistics, are not subject to rigorous scrutiny. Some companies have even gone so far as to use fake certifications or seals on their products. 

Outright Lying:

Greenwashing consists of striving to deceive consumers. While the other strategies I have mentioned fall into the basket one might label “fibbing or stretching the truth” sometimes companies just completely build a branding campaign on a lie, seeming to imagine they won’t be caught. One of the most notable recent examples is that of the H&M Conscious collection. Despite the “climate crusader” branding and the claims that the garments included more recycled content, the line of clothing actually contained more synthetic fiber than the “normal” lines offered by this company. H&M isare far from the only fast fashion label which has undertaken a campaign of greenwashing rather than a campaign of actually trying to make sustainable changes to production. 

The burden of combating greenwashing and demanding real change in the textile industry ought to fall to governmental regulation and commercial integrity, but as with so many other issues, they trickle down into the laps of individual consumers.

What can we do?

**Think critically about our power as consumers. Our spending power is an expression of our voice. We can use this to boycott companies which are jumping onto the greenwashing bandwagon wherever possible.

**Shop second hand wherever possible. Using something already in existence has a significantly lower footprint than creating a new object.

**Read the fine print and look past the obvious visual cues. When shopping for products, clothing, etc don’t let the bold type and branding fool you. Examine the claims being made and evaluate them for yourself.

**Seek out 3rd party ratings for companies. These can give you some perspective on how the company stacks up to metrics not of their own creation.

More reading:

Eleni Georgiadis

Eleni Georgiadis is a classically trained horn player currently residing in Kentucky. Outside of music, she enjoys knitting, sewing, composting, kombucha brewing, and spending time outdoors. She is thrilled to have the opportunity to share her thoughts about sustainability and inclusivity in fashion, weaving together her technical knowledge, passion, and research.

Image of Eleni Georgiadis, writer