Many companies describe their products as environmentally-friendly and mention their sustainability goals in their marketing campaigns. Have you ever wondered how accurate these publicity materials are? The author is here to debunk “greenwashing” advertising claims.
Sustainable, green, conscious: those words and similar ones appear in advertisements more and more frequently. There is a reason why they increasingly become part of marketing strategies: they attract customers from Generation Z. In an interview for an article that was published in Nikkei Asia, Sertaç Yeltekin, the Chief Operating Officer of Insitor Partners, which is a socially focused venture capital fund based in Singapore, said that “More than any other generation that came before, Generation Z is more prepared to open their wallets for a brand that promotes causes about social impacts, such as climate, LGBTQ, racial or social justice”. Given that Gen Z will make up the largest segment of all consumers by 2030, it is natural that companies are trying to answer the needs and desires of a generation that cares about the social and environmental impact of their consumption patterns.
Yet, what if companies are only pretending to be eco-friendly through different forms of advertisement and doing things more or less the way they used to do? This is what we call “greenwashing”. Even though this is a more common practice at present, the term dates back to 1986 and was coined by the environmentalist Jay Westerveld. He was inspired by a note he saw at a hotel asking customers to reuse their towels to reduce ecological damage. Westerveld observed that this note contradicted the expansion of the resort through the construction of more bungalows.
A few examples from the fashion industry may come in handy in this context. In 2012, Zara committed to eradicate discharges of hazardous chemicals throughout its supply chain and products by this year. This could be regarded as an important step, given that the textile industry came only second in creating freshwater pollution in 2017. On the other hand, the most recent full-fledged sustainability report of Zara’s parent company Inditex Group that can be found on the Internet is as old as 2004. Therefore, Zara is not among the companies that report their sustainability progress regularly, and the fact that it does not reveal how or whether it reaches its sustainability goals, at least not in an easily traceable fashion, may indicate that it is greenwashing.
Just like Zara which created the tag “Join Life” for its products that fulfill certain criteria for being environmentally friendly, H&M places the tag “Conscious” on its products that have at least 50% of their material from sustainable sources. Nevertheless, Norway’s Forbrukertilsynet (Consumer Authority) decided to investigate the claim to sustainability of the “Conscious” collection last year. The deputy director of Forbrukertilsynet stated that “H&M are not being clear or specific enough in explaining how the clothes in the Conscious collection are more ‘sustainable’ than other products they sell.”
The vagueness of the terms such as “sustainable”, “green”, and “conscious” is exploited by numerous retailers so that they can create an eco-friendly image of their brands for profits. Even the tech-savvy Gen Z can fall into this trap, as branding is a powerful tool of manipulation, and as it is time and energy-consuming to look into the environmental record of every company meticulously. Luckily, there are some online tools and portals to help out consumers with ethical concerns, such as Ethical Made Easy, which provides a directory of ethical brands for accessories, beauty products, clothes, and homeware; STAIY, which is an online marketplace for sustainable fashion pieces where the degree of sustainability of each brand is evaluated according to a definite set of criteria; and Cece Project, on whose website items collected from ethical fashion stores are sold in a number of countries. While these websites will help you in your quest for environmental-friendly products, it is also important to identify greenwashing in order not to transfer your income to companies that are exploiting the environmentally concerned. My advice is to always keep a critical eye on all forms of advertisement: to read between the lines, to take possible incentives into consideration, and to question the ideas being pushed.