What is greenwashing, why should you care and what can you do about it?

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The Joyful team has been in marketing for a cumulative 65 years, so we know a thing or two about how brands market themselves – the good, the bad, and the downright bizarre.

Greenwashing is one of those marketing phrases that has been increasingly thrown about over the last few years. So, as a part of our ongoing commitment to making a positive impact on our people and the planet, we’re digging into what greenwashing actually is, why we think you should care, and – most importantly – what we can all do about it.

So, what is greenwashing?

The term greenwashing isn’t a new one – in fact, it’s older than the majority of the team here at The Joyful. It was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, in an essay response to slickly produced print, TV and radio ads extolling the green virtues of big businesses who were simultaneously participating in environmentally damaging practices.

Old skool greenwashing was reassuringly blatant.  

For example, take DuPont’s self-congratulatory 1991 advert celebrating its environmentally friendly double-hulled oil tankers. Whilst its marketing department bombarded us with images of joyful dolphins and clapping ducks (no, really) bigging up DuPont’s safeguarding of the environment, Friends of the Earth reported that “In reality, Du Pont is the single largest corporate polluter in the United States”.

In addition, their claim of investment in two innovative double-hulled tankers, was, at best, misdirection as double-hulled tankers had already been commonplace in the industry for many years.

What does greenwashing mean in 2022?

Over the last 30 years, as our media and how we consume it has evolved, so has greenwashing into something a lot less obvious and a lot more insidious. 

Classic contemporary greenwashing tactics actively recruit and involve the consumer, pulling us into a web of misdirection and making us complicit in the deceit.  

We effectively become a part of sustaining the problem, rather than working to fix the systems that proliferate environmental damage.

Let’s look at a couple of examples from the fashion industry.

It’s an established fact that fast fashion is an environmentally unsustainable and morally questionable industry.

In its Fossil Fashion report of March 2022, Changing Markets claimed that clothing production had doubled between 2000 and 2014, with the average consumer buying 60% more clothing compared to 15 years ago. 

Each item of clothing is now kept in the wardrobe for half as long, with some estimates suggesting that consumers treat the lowest-priced garments as nearly disposable, discarding them after just seven or eight wears.

The rise of disposable fast fashion comes with a devastating cost. Current purchasing practices by brands force suppliers to cut corners on labour rights to successfully fulfil orders. It can be deadly (as shown by the shocking Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh) and it can be horrific for the environment.

Indeed, the fashion industry is the third biggest producer of plastic on the planet. Many of the clothes that we see in the shops are made from synthetic fibres, like polyester which is made from PET – the same stuff that makes up plastic water bottles. 

Yet, still, we buy. Why?

Partly because we’re told we’re a part of the solution…

A recent greenwashing phenomenon is the fast fashion ‘recycled clothing’ initiative. 

There is a slew of high street retailers (I’m totally down with naming and shaming, BTW) including H&M, Zara and that vile fast fashion megalodon, Primark, who make claims about their recycled polyester coming from single-use plastic bottles.

Sounds great, huh? 

Well, sadly, not great at all. Changing Markets found that the process of turning plastic bottles into clothing removes them from the recycling loops, where, if they had stayed, they could have been made into new bottles again. Ultimately, reducing the amount of virgin plastic needed.

This environmental ‘recycling’ flag-waving makes us feel good about helping to solve the ‘fast fashion problem’, encourages us to keep spending money on the high street and distracts us from the ongoing bigger picture issues behind the horrible impact fast fashion is having on the environment:

  • Microplastics – recycled plastic going into synthetic clothing production does nothing to help stop the wider problem of microplastics being released into the environment
  • Oil consumption – production of man-made fibres, derived from oil and gas, has exponentially increased over the last 20 years and shows no signs of slowing 
  • Water consumption – to produce just one cotton shirt requires approximately 2500 litres of water. And how many cotton shirts have you owned in your lifetime…? The scale of water consumption is mind-boggling. In a world where an estimated four billion people are already experiencing severe water scarcity for at least one month each year, that’s a pretty sobering (zero pun intended) statistic.

Another report by Changing Markets also found that the badges, certifications and accreditations oft used by fashion brands to reassure the consumer of their environmental credentials (for example The Higg Index, Wrap and The Textile Exchange) are arguably a “licence to greenwash”.  The report suggests that these schemes lack robustness, regulation and ambition – ultimately making systemic, lasting and integral change to the fashion industry unlikely and misleading badge-wearing commonplace.

In a nutshell, the smoke and mirrors of fashion greenwashing distract us from the real matter at hand: the devastating, deep impact on the environment caused by the fashion industry

Y THO?

In another nutshell, commercial gain.

It is estimated that the UK apparel market will be worth £60.17 billion in 2022 alone. Experts predict the market will continue to grow, eventually reaching £66.9 billion by 2026.

As long as there is a demand, the fashion industry will supply. And to encourage supply, the fashion industry is consciously and deliberately distracting us from the bigger picture of its horrid environmental impact with greenwashing.

What can we do about greenwashing?

Greenwashing solutions for individuals

Reuse and repurpose – challenge your own consumer habits.

Greenwashing’s nemeses are the dynamic duo of transparency and education.

The power really is in your hands – all it takes is a couple of conscious choices and you can vote with your wallet:

  • Check all your favourite retailers’ websites for their sustainability commitments and what action they are actually taking. Are they just talking the talk or are they walking the walk? Marks & Spencer is a good example of how a high street brand could be signposting everything they are doing. Lucy + Yak is a great example of how a smaller brand can commit to sustainability. Engage with what your favourite brands are really doing and be honest with yourself – is it good enough?
  • Change who you buy from. At The Joyful, we use apps like Good On You to check how environmentally-friendly and sustainable brands are before we buy, and use platforms such as Finsu and Thread which curate sustainable brands to help you shop better. Reward brands that are genuinely doing good with your hard-earned money.
  • Reduce & consume less. Just. Buy. Less. Need we say more?
  • Reuse & contribute to a circular economy. The Joyful team uses apps like Vinted to swap old clothes – or try a local clothes swap meet or Swish.
  • Recycling should be the last priority, not the default!

Sustainability options for businesses

Accountability is key for any business serious about having a more positive impact on their people and the planet.  

The fantastic news for business is that being a more sustainable operation actually increases performance. Take a look at Purpose of Business if you don’t believe us – there are loads of juicy commercial statistics in there to motivate your fellow decision-makers and inspire change.

We also have some tools for you to interrogate how you are doing business RIGHT NOW to do some soul searching around your people and practices.

Get in touch to talk to us about how we can help you identify your own barriers to being a more environmentally-friendly and sustainable business.  

We will empower you to make a bigger, more positive impact on your people, your customers and the planet so you can build a profitable business with a lasting legacy. 

Being a sustainable, transparent business committed to change is not only the right thing to do, it’s the only commercially and socially viable way to do business today.

Ask yourself and your leadership team: is the world a better place because your business is in it?

If the answer is no, then it’s time to talk to The Joyful.

Lucy Freeborn

Lucy Freeborn

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