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Is it really sustainable? A greenwashing checklist.

Words By Tena @ Thinking Threads


brands will invest more energy and resources into showing how green they are instead of changing their (unsustainable) business models. 

It’s funny how eco, green, and sustainable are some of the biggest marketing terms nowadays, isn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong. The fact that many of us can find eco-friendly products in ordinary supermarkets is a great thing. It really is! I’m happy to see more and more low-waste, vegan, plant-based, organic, fair trade, recycled, compostable, and so on products available to me. What used to be a very niche market barely a decade ago is now slowly becoming a regular option. 

But here’s a trick.

While there are many reasons why companies are paying more attention than ever (and rightly so) to the environment, one of the driving forces is consumer demand. Researchers tracked a  71% increase in interest in sustainable products in the past 5 years alone, and expect further growth especially as an effect of the pandemic. So far so good. Except that, when brands are primarily motivated by consumer demand, they approach sustainability as a profit-worthy trend. 

What I mean by this is that the brands will invest more energy and resources into showing how green they are instead of changing their (unsustainable) business models. This is why the terms mentioned above are now big marketing trends. Unfortunately, more often than not, everything stays on the market.

It’s the best seen in fashion. Sustainability in fashion is a growing topic and pretty much every major fashion brand has a sustainable or an eco-line. However, a  recent report by Changing Markets shows that 59% of the claims of some of the biggest brands (including H&M, ASOS, and M&S) are misleading and don’t comply with the marketing guidelines. 

In other words, over half of the “eco-friendly” claims in fashion are greenwashing.

This is why it’s important to understand what greenwashing is and how to recognise it.

Let’s start!


What is greenwashing?

There are different definitions of greenwashing, but I find the one by  Cambridge dictionary very useful and to the point: Greenwash (verb) means to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it is. 

Put simply, greenwashing is the claims and tactics (often in marketing and communication) employed by businesses to position them as sustainable while hiding the impact of their business. 

It can take many forms, from emphasising only the positive aspects of the products, having only a few products (or a line of products) that are sustainable but the rest is not, donating to a charity but continuing to exploit the resources, using vague terms on purpose, or straight-up lying. And it’s older than what you may have thought! 

The term first appeared in the 1980s and was coined by the environmentalist  Jay Westerveld to describe  Chevron’s marketing campaign. For the record, Chevron is  the second most polluting company in the world. This oil and gas company is responsible for emitting 43.35 billion tonnes of C02 into the atmosphere! Their whole business interest is perpetuating our global dependency on non-renewable resources. So, no matter what they did 40 years ago or what they’re doing now, this is greenwashing because it’s nothing compared to the  environmental and social damage their business does. 

And if we focus on the fashion industry alone, we’ll find many examples of greenwashing. 

Almost all of the leading fashion brands have a sustainable or conscious line. You might have heard about the famous H&MConscious collection, Zara’s ‘Join the life’ campaign orPrimark Cares initiative. These are just 3 of the biggest fast fashion brands, who have launched their sustainable collections while, at the same time, continuing to put thousands of new items on the market every week. Those same companies have a  non-transparent supply chain, have been accused of  workers' exploitation, are the reason why we have a  waste issue in the industry and contribute to  climate change. One eco-friendly line is a drop in the ocean for them, especially when we don’t know if people making those conscious lines have been compensated fairly. 

So, the question remains…

How to recognise greenwashing?

59% of the claims of some of the biggest brands (including H&M, ASOS, and M&S) are misleading and don’t comply with the marketing guidelines. 

In other words, over half of the “eco-friendly” claims in fashion are greenwashing.

Let me first state that not all responsibility is on us, as consumers. The fashion industry is still largely unregulated and there are no single, widely accepted definitions of what counts as sustainable. Both brands and governments have a far greater responsibility than any individual. 

Yet, staying informed and critical is crucial. This is why I wanted to share a greenwashing checklist, which I use personally when assessing a brand. Specifically, there are 6 questions I ask myself before buying a product or supporting a company.


So, next time you consider shopping for a product, ask yourself these first!


Greenwashing checklist

1. Do they explain what they mean by it?

Brands will use the terms eco-friendly, Earth-friendly, conscious, sustainable, green, and so on. But it doesn’t mean much unless they explain what’s behind it. We need details here!


2. Was the product made ethically?

How much do we know about people who made the products? Were they paid fairly? Do they work in a safe environment? These are just some ways you can judge a company: by how they treat their workers.
An important thing to know here is that naming a country where products are made isn’t enough. We need the information on the working conditions.


3. Do they have any certifications?

The 3rd party certificates are given by an independent body to support the company’s claims. It’s like a testimony that a company is telling the truth.
Yet, keep in mind that certificates usually confirm single claims, for example, that the materials they’re using are of organic origin. Still, many of them don’t necessarily talk about the ethics of the company nor assess the company’s business entirely. So, certificates are useful but they alone are not enough.


4. What materials do they use?

Talking about fashion specifically, it’s important to look at the composition of the fabric. If a brand claims to use recycled materials, check the ratio of recycled vs virgin fibres in their clothes. The same goes for any green claim, like organic or natural materials. Always look at both the ratio and the actual materials used.


5. What about their other products?

As mentioned above, a brand can have one sustainable product or a line, while continuing to mainly produce unsustainable and ethically questionable stuff. In that case, perhaps you want to consider buying for a brand that makes only products that you can stand by.


6. Who’s behind the brand?

Sometimes, a big company will make or buy a smaller brand, that then focuses on the so-called sustainable market (aka, makes nicer products). Sure, it is nice to support a smaller brand that is doing better but the money will still go, at the end of the day, to the big company that owns them. This is why I personally prefer buying from independent brands.


In the end, if you fall for the greenwashing, don’t beat yourself up! We all have been there and sometimes, it’s tricky to recognise greenwashing on time. Instead, learn from the experience. With time, you’ll get better and better at spotting it.

Have any examples of greenwashing you saw recently? Share them, so we can all learn from them!




Thinking ThreadsTena Lavrenčić - Thinking Threads.
Tena is a cultural anthropologist, a researcher, and an active advocate for sustainable and ethical fashion. 
You can find her on instagram at @thinking.threads