Greenwashing, why definitions matter

Greenwashing

Not too long ago, here at Treendly we told you about the latest trend in e-commerce: conscious consumerism. While it has many benefits for companies, consumers, and the environment, there is one risk. However, this risk only involves shoppers, not businesses. Meet “greenwashing,” the latest idea to fool consumers. And it’s how companies reach to people’s demands for a more responsible and sustainable industry.

”Many are making it look as if the fashion industry are starting to take responsibility, by spending fantasy amounts on campaigns where they portray themselves as ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’, ‘green’, ‘climate neutral’ and ‘fair’,” activist Great Thunberg wrote. “But let’s be clear: This is almost never anything but pure greenwashing. That is one of the many reasons why we will need a system change.”

Greenwashing, explained

This happens when a company uses marketing strategies and messages to portray itself as green, sustainable, and eco-friendly. It means this companies is telling consumer it is more sustainable than it really is. The activities of businesses do damage the environment and the workers, but greenwashing allows businesses to appear green -when they are as grey as air pollution.

There are different strategies for greenwashing. Some of them include:

  • Carbon footprint calculators to shift the blame to consumers
  • Corporate “net zero” pledges without defining terms such as “natural”
  • Misleading environmental criteria
  • Lack of evidence

What you might not know is that the term “greenwashing” isn’t new. Environmental activist Jay Westerveld first used this word in 1986. Specifically, he referred to the hotel industry, which was promoting the reuse of towels as a way to reduce waste and to protect the environment. That’s the marketing message the industry sent to the public. Except, the industry was doing it to reduce costs, not to be more sustainable. Westerveld called it out, creating the term “greenwashing.”


The power of marketing

The International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network (ICPEN) released a 2020 report on 500 websites of different industries including fashion, food, and beauty. The report showed that 40% of these websites are giving misleading environmental information to their customers. The terms are vague and not defined, like “eco.” They omitted relevant information such as the product’s carbon footprint and these websites also weren’t associated with accredited sustainability organizations.

But customers rarely read the fine print, which is how companies have gotten away with greenwashing. A 2021 report by the European Commission also shows that 42% of companies exaggerate green statements.

“More and more people want to live a green life,” said Didier Reynders, Commissioner for Justice, “however, there are also unscrupulous traders out there, who pull the wool over consumers’ eyes with vague, false or exaggerated claims. The Commission is fully committed to empowering consumers in the green transition and fighting greenwashing.”

In the UK, the advertisement industry is already trying to fight this trend with the AdGreen initiative. It focuses on reducing the carbon footprint of the ad industry, providing companies with advice and tools to cut back on waste. But not everyone is following this lead.

For example, the fashion industry has often come under attack for this practice. Especially the fast fashion industry with brands such as H&M. The clothing giant lauched the Conscious Collection, advertised as eco-friendly and made with 100% organic cotton, Tencel or recycled polyester. But the marketing campaign didn’t include important information, like the percentage of recycled material. A crucial detail to evaluate sustainability.

When a company portrays itself as “sustainable,” is it a marketing stunt or the truth?


Why it matters

Consumers are looking more and more for conscious companies and they value sustainability. Sure, they want affordable products but not at the cost of the environment or of workers. With greenwashing, businesses have found a way around people’s needs and demands. Holding them accountable is the only solution. Calling them out will ensure the health of the planet and the respect for the employees. It matters because e-commerce and customers have different goals. The result? Only time will tell.

Greenwashing
The “sustainability” trend according to Treendly.





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