Major Greenwashing Red Flags and How to Spot Them

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A while ago I wrote about greenwashing and I’ve been obsessed about it ever since. Like, it’s everywhere.

A study found that 37% of American consumers are willing to spend more money on sustainable products, and probably this tendency will grow in the future as younger generations are willing to spend a couple of extra bucks for sustainable products more than the older ones (45% of people aged 18-34 vs 14% of those aged 55 and up).

Being eco-friendly is trendy, which is amazing because there are many honest businesses that are truly trying to bring value-driven and eco-friendly products into the market. But, unfortunately, there are also shady companies looking exclusively after the *cha-ching* and not willing to make any real sustainability-related effort but happy to pretend.

This is unethical, of course, but also illegal in many countries. For example, in the US, the Federal Trade Commission has the Green Guides in order to regulate these issues.

Let’s break down 9 of the most common greenwashing red flags in the fashion market.

Greenwashing Red Flags and How to Avoid Them

1. Vague language

“Language is never neutral.” If I learned something in college, this is that.

And language also happens to be one of the strongest weapons for a business’ marketing strategy.

Think about how many times you’ve read words as “natural”, “bio” or “green”. And maybe that choice of words has actually made you buy the “greener” product over the one next to it – at least I know I have!

A good example in fashion is cotton. Cotton is a natural textile, so you’ll often see printed on the tag of a pair of socks “natural fabric” or “premium cotton” or something along those lines. The truth is that regular, non-organic cotton needs huge amounts of water, lots of pesticides and fertilizers to grow in the amounts that we consume.

Then, the marketing team of this pair of socks is taking advantage of the positive connotations of the word “natural” and the idea we have of cotton (soft, harmless,…).

2. They are mass producers

And they make environmental commitments that have nothing to do with reducing the production volume. Using sustainable materials means very little if the production is mass-production. Why?

  • it still creates tons of waste (more on this post about fast fashion)
  • the fact that X company uses recycled materials doesn’t mean that their workers will have great working conditions – they’ll still have to produce millions of garments for less than the minimum wage and at the speed of time (more on this here)
  • transporting millions of pieces of clothing to every corner of the planet emits enormous amounts of carbon

I had honestly never thought about this, but then Zahra from Soulful Seeds opened my eyes with this Instagram post.

Thanks to her I learned that Zara currently produces 20,000 new designs every year. When you go to their website you see that they’re making sustainability commitments (“we pledge to do this and that by 2025 blablabla”). Progress is always great, but it’s not enough if they’re not willing to tackle (not even address) the major issue here: the production volume.

3. The brand has a sustainable collection

This is them admitting that the rest of their production is not green or sustainable. And thats the tea, bye.

I agree that taking steps towards sustainability is amazing, and that established brands may not be able to go full sustainable from one day to the next. But it’s not okay when they try to shift your attention to the 1% they’re doing right so that you ignore all the other dirty 99%.

The truth is that these collections only represent a teeny tiny amount of their actual offer. For example, Asos announced recently a circular collection…that represents 0.035% of their 85,000-product offer. Yikes.

4. Their products are incompatible with their promises

In this other post about greenwashing, we talked about how a certain fuel company was promoting the environmental responsibility of petrol. Awkward, I know.

In that case, it’s obvious that fuel and environment are not a match, but you’ll find other cases where this weird relationship is not that clear and in those cases you need to use your gut.

Now you know that a sustainable line from a fast fashion brand is doesn’t mean that the brand is sustainable and that a brand that cracks new designs every week in mass doesn’t align with sustainable values either, no matter what their pledges say.

5. Nothing backs up their claims

If you go to the websites of sustainable brands, you’ll find a sustainability page with yearly reports, mission statements and paragraphs explaining their values. Okay, now even fast fashion brands have a sustainability page, but their statements are quite vague and the information they give is not backed up by third parties.

This means that there’s no legal background to those claims.

Saying “my products are organic” can be a false claim, but having the “USDA Organic” stamp is something different.

Little disclaimer here: certifications are very expensive to get. so in the case of smaller or newer companies be more benevolent and maybe send them an email asking for more information about their certifications, maybe they’re working on them!

6. They use images to mislead you

Be aware of the images and colors that go along with their campaigns or that you see on their packaging. It’s very common to find brands using things such as neuromarketing and psychological tricks to trick our brains.

In the case of fashion, lately I’ve sent that a few fast fashion brands choose very minimalist set ups for their campaigns, something that typically you see in slow fashion brands – coincidence? I don’t think so, I think it”s smart marketing.

Also pay attention to colors. The clothes from the H&M conscious collection have green tags, which has a very clear connection with the whole sustainable movement.

7. Their claims are straight-up irrelevant

Remember, unsustainable fashion is the normal, but it shouldn’t be. This is tricky for consumers because if a brand tells us things like “our factories don’t dump dirty water into rivers” we see that as something positive, when in reality it’s a minimum requirement of human decency, something that they shouldn’t do to begin with.

So be careful when a brand claims to pay all its workers a fair wage – that doesn’t mean they’re ethical, they’re just complying with very, very basic human rights that we shouldn’t have to be fighting for at this point.

We can also talk about the difference between doing less harm and doing some good. If their pay their workers decent salaries, they’re not exploiting them any more, but it would be even better if on top of that they empowered them or promoted things like regional development and education.

These things would make their claims relevant. No one cares if they’re doing what they’re required to do by law, we want real involvement.

8. Their view of sustainability is super simplistic

You already know that sustainability is a veery complex topic, and the same applies to sustainable fashion.

Something like clothes made from recycled plastic can have lots of implications.

On the one hand, it’s great that we’re innovating and finding technologies that allow us to turn used plastic into something new. Win-win situation: we curve plastic waste by giving it a new life.

But what about the creation of microfibers derived from the production and use of these clothes? And are we sure they’re made with post-consumer plastic?

Things are not as simple as they seem, and sometimes we have to question things.

9. How they approach sustainability on social media

Have you seen Missguided comments talking about ethics? And what about H&M saying that they’re most transparednt fashion brand?

Whenever fast fashion brands comment on sustainability they do it either because they’ve been called out and they need to cover their ass, or because they’re on an intense greenwashing campaign.

You’ll see that their captions and tweets (and those of the influencers working with them) sound perfectly scripted and that they use this corporate-matter-of-fact language. Always the same keywords and the same facts but without anything new to add to the conversation, just blabber.


What do you think?