Exhausted Trends: Greenwashing

Neon lights above a clothing rack that reads: being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. we’re #2.

I work for a big retailer.

I live for real sustainability.

These sides of me are at odds like Miley Stewart and Hannah Montana.

Okay. Yes, my alternate persona isn’t a pop icon or a sorta unpopular middle-schooler. But, hear me out — the Miley-me, the real me, is a hippie adjacent who has nightmares about discarded K-cups. The Hannah-me, my work persona, actively helps people by fast fashion and 24 packs of bottled waters.

On nearly every shift, I see something that makes my teeth grind beneath my hand-stitched, ethically-made fabric mask. Generally it’s something small — like having to scan fifteen box of plastic spoons. Other times it’s the blatant greenwashing.

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing works by using resourceful marketing to make a brand or product seem more eco-friendly or ethical than it truly is.

Or, to quote Leyla Acaroglu’s article on greenwashing,

As an analogy, greenwashing is to corporations as tree hugging is to individuals who say they care about the environment, it’s a symbolic reference that has little actual outcomes.

A gloved hand holds four eco labelled plastic cups that were found on the ground.

When it trends

The phrase greenwashing has been around since at least the nineties, but has had a resurgence of popularity this year. According to Google Trends, the search term greenwashing spiked three times in 2020. These surges generally corresponded with news outlets covering cases of greenwashing, like Ryanair’s February PR disaster or the feel good stories that tried to paint the coronavirus lockdowns as an environmental godsend.

Greenwashing in action

It isn’t always the easiest to pin-point greenwashing. Sometimes it’s as small as a wording choice or as big as a brand announcing a new sustainable line, which draws into question the rest of their lines.

Tide’s ad for their purclean line. The product in front of greenery with the text: now EPA certified safer choice certified.

Companies like Tide and Windex faced backlash in 2020 for greenwashing. Tide claimed their purclean line of detergent to be “A powerful, plant-based clean you can feel good about.” However, their product was only 75% plant-based and contained petroleum.

Meanwhile, Windex released a new ‘non-toxic, vinegar-based’ product that, according to a lawsuit, contains irritants, combustibles, and other harsh chemicals. In both examples, the companies used buzzwords that have virtually no regulation. This lack of regulation means that these phrases can be used in marketing to draw in those who are eco- or health conscious without actually having to prove the supposed environmental benefits.

But, what about greenwashing in retail?

I’m glad you asked.

Greenwashing in retail

For a few months while in college I worked for H&M. Despite their excessive use of plastic bags, I thought they were a relatively eco-conscious brand. They had fabric donation bins at every cashpoint and their own Conscious line that I gawked at every shift. In recent years, I’ve been nagged by this fear that they weren’t as conscious as I had believed. As I learned more about greenwashing and how sneaky it can be, I began to wonder if H&M actually doing enough, or whether they’re just using clever marketing?

Interior of a retail space with light hardwood flooring, a clothing rack, and a table with accessories.

According to good on you, a site that researches how sustainable and ethical a brand is by analyzing 500 data points, has labelled H&M as ‘It’s A Start’ (meaning that they are by no means a sustainable brand). While they have programs and lines that promote the recycling of materials, the bulk of the materials they use are not eco-friendly and they still employ a fast-fashion business model.

A quick scroll on H&M.com would make it appear that they are green — or at the very least greenish. Their models are minimalistically dressed in warm neutrals with bare faces. The images for their home section feature pillows and couches in soft tans, camels, and beiges with an abundance of plants in natural light. They even have multiple tabs dedicated to their pledge to sustainability.

Yet, a minute of research reveals that they are not a sustainable brand. They are merely utilizing clever marketing to make it appear that they are.

Conclusion — Part i

Of course, H&M is not the only brand to do this. And neither are the other companies mentioned in this piece. Many of the brands that do practice this marketing ploy just don’t happen to get the same media coverage. This is an epidemic that prays on our hopes and dreams for a future where global warming was just a fever dream of the early 2000’s.

Greenwashing wastes money and time by focusing on good press rather than by working to combat sky high emissions or wasteful manufacturing. While companies abuse our genuine concern for the environment to pad their pockets, they continue unsustainable, harmful practices.

The Solution — Part ii

Unfortunately, much like trying to solve global warming itself, there is no one solution; instead, it’s a series of habits to adopt.

Here’s a brief list to consider when faced with a possible greenwashing:

  • Avoid trendy products. This could be avoiding fashion trends and buying multi-purpose pieces; or, avoiding brands like Urban Outfitters that sell products for the eco-minded (and uses mostly paper bags) but has little to no sustainability measures in place.
  • Think critically. it’s easy to get sucked into ads with feel good imagery. But, if they’re promoting something that seems too good to be true — it probably is. Kathryn Kellogg has published this article with real adverts to help train your eyes to pick out greenwashed ads.
  • Research. Understand common terms that have no real meaning. Such phrases like sustainably sourced, natural, non-toxic, and organic aren’t regulated and can be used without basis.
  • Check out the packaging. If a product claims to be great for the environment but uses heaps of plastic, skip it.

NOTE: the cover image is from a Reformation store. The brand is public about their practices and effort to be ethical and sustainable. To read about their practices check out their website and good on you for their rating.



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