The Issue With Greenwashing

Let's talk about greenwashing and the issues it creates for consumers, workers and the environment.


Image source: Flickr

Any person who considers themselves to hold an online presence would be aware of the PrettyLittleThing 8p dress scandal, Fashion Nova’s knock-off Kim K dress and the Channel 4 documentary which exposed Missguided’s reported 46 per cent median gender pay gap and a culture of fatphobia. All of these shady controversies are symptoms of the disease that is fast fashion, but despite being the leading names in wasteful consumerism, brands such as these are not above greenwashing. The issue of greenwashing is where a company will launch adverts, campaigns, products or collections under the pretence that they are environmentally beneficial. The information provided is often in contradiction to the environmental and sustainability impacts of the company in a broader context, purposefully misleading consumers.


As sustainability and the environmental impacts of a brand have risen in collective consciousness, manifesting in that niggling guilt over your latest haul, brands have jumped on the bandwagon and ridden it to excess. A prime example is reality star Zara McDermott claiming her collection with Missguided is sustainable because it uses some recycled materials, yet prices start at £12, meaning there is no way garment workers could be receiving a fair wage. FYI, a product isn’t sustainable if it isn’t ethical too.


A 2020 CGS survey of more than 2,000 individuals revealed that despite purchasing habits changing during the pandemic, sustainability continues to be an important factor for shoppers, with 61 per cent of UK consumers saying that sustainability is important to their buying decisions.

The report also reveals that what a consumer defines as sustainable varies between region, age and gender. In the UK 30 per cent of consumers said they define sustainability as following ethical practices, and 37 per cent said they would stop purchasing from a brand if they discovered the practices weren’t ethical. The use of greenwashing poses an out for companies, a way to deceive the consumer that it is a sustainable brand, by hiding behind the draws of an eco-conscious and ethical company.


This includes H&M’s Conscious Collection. Centred on using and reusing more environmentally friendly materials, the collection is one of H&M Group’s pride and joys. But one collection a year does not make up for failing to live up to promises of paying garment workers a fair living wage. The company promotes its ‘Garment Collection Programme’ as setting out for a “sustainable fashion future” promising to send your unwanted clothing to a recycling plant or “marketed worldwide”, but the majority of garments collected simply enter the secondhand economy and are exported. These clothes end up in places such as Accra, Ghana (more information on imported secondhand clothing and Accra can be found here and by visiting @theorispresent on Instagram) where roughly 15 million garments flow through weekly, with 40 per cent becoming waste as it is not resold or reused. Such practises exacerbate the already precarious nature of secondhand markets. Other H&M Group companies, &OtherStories and Weekday, are equally guilty of utilising garment collection and recycled materials to frame their business model as a more sustainable option to high street competitors.


One of @theoreispresent's Instagram posts.


And H&M Group is not alone, huge fashion names all have their own take on greenwashing. Zara has its Join Life range and Primark ‘Cares’, yet workers in Zara and Primark’s Myanmar factories were fired days after forming a union with the goal of better working conditions and the ability to hold the employer accountable for breaching their rights. PrettyLittleThing, owned by Boohoo PLC - the most renowned name for supporting the influencer to landfill pipeline, even has a ‘recycled’ collection.

It is now a widely held belief that not only do consumers have the right to know where their purchases come from, but also who made them. But if the sustainability claims a brand makes mask the true origins by instead highlighting its new ‘recycled’ collection, can greenwashing become a legal issue? H&M already received heat in 2019 from the Norwegian Consumer Authority (CA), Norway’s consumer watch dog, for providing "insufficient" information about the sustainable nature of its "sustainable style" collection. The CA deemed H&M's portrayal of sustainability for its collection to be misleading and in breach of Norwegian marketing laws.


The conversation on greenwashing is complex and nuanced, with a much wider reach than just the fashion industry. Yet, such campaigns may even begin to pave the way for more lasting ethical change. But one thing is for sure, more product cannot, and does not, equal more sustainable. A great way to flesh out false sustainability claims is to check the brands rating on Good On You. The site assesses the impact to people, the planet and animals to decide whether a brand is a 1 (We Avoid) or a 5 (Great), allowing you to make an informed decision on where you spend your ethically conscious £££.