Scrolling through a fashion themed Instagram account, the term "greenwashing" is sure to come up at least once, either in the caption or the comments. Fashionistas are more aware of their clothes' environmental impact than ever before, and they are using their newfound awareness to remind brands and other consumers about the importance of protecting the planet. But, is the public calling out of perceived greenwashing helping the fashion industry become more environmentally sustainable?
Greenwashing is synonymous with false marketing.
No one likes being lied to, so when consumers felt that brands were misleading them or "washing" over a complicated issue, they struck back— coining terms like "greenwashing" and "woke-washing" to describe unsupported claims in marketing. Greenwashing applies to brands that claim to be environmentally sustainable, but in actuality, only have one product or one component that could be considered environmentally-friendly. For example, a fast fashion brand that claims their newest collection is "sustainable" because it is made out of organic cotton, but does not provide any additional information about where the cotton was grown or how it was processed, is greenwashing because it is leading consumers to believe that they are buying something that is better for the environment, when in reality, it may not be.
Everything seems to be greenwashing nowadays.
The internet has allowed consumers to access information about the fashion industry that used to be available industry insiders only. Now that anyone can find out how clothes are made, it is more difficult for brands to hide their operations and deceit their customers. The rise of social media has also played a role in exposing false marketing ploys. Platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and now TikTok are used by younger, more conscious consumers who can easily call out brands that they don't like or agree with. As a result, greenwashing claims are freely thrown around and quickly spread, making them seem more prevalent. In truth, brands sharing misleading advertising has been an issue since the sustainable fashion movement first started. With that being said, just because greenwashing is being noticed more doesn't mean every brand accused is purposely tricking consumers.
H&M and activists are at odds with one another, creating a huge fight with the accusation of greenwashing in the middle.
The Scandinavian fast fashion group has been the most notorious greenwasher, according to conscious consumers who have repeatedly dissed the company online. While there is some base to those accusations — last year, the Norwegian Consumer Authority said H&M provided insufficient information to back up its sustainability claims — there is also evidence that the international retailer is a leader in innovative, environmentally-friendly processes and technology. In April of this year, the H&M Foundation awarded €1 million to five projects working to create lab-grown cotton, eliminate the need for toxic dyes, improve supply chain transparency, separate and clean factory wastewater, and turn greenhouse gases into sustainable polyester. Those projects will advance environmentally sustainable fashion and benefit the planet in largely unimaginable ways. Unfortunately, the fighting over greenwashing claims has taken airtime away from these innovative solutions to fashion's biggest problems.
I'm in no way arguing that H&M is a good and trustworthy brand. Just because the retailer donated less than 0.00005% of their 2019 revenue — total revenue was $24.3 billion according to Statista — to a few projects does not mean it is a glowing beacon of sustainability. But at the same time, H&M does not deserve to be forever marked as a wretched company that is ruining the earth because of some vague marketing in the past. The outing of greenwashing started as a good way for consumers to become more educated about the clothes they buy, but now it is getting out of control. Many overly critical consumers are far too eager to cancel brands for small mistakes or miscommunications. On the other hand, brands are too quick to label something as sustainable without doing adequate research into the term. What we are left with is a fight between brands and consumers, with neither side being right. Instead of slapping a "sustainable" or "greenwashed" label on products, brands and consumers should be working together to clearly define environmental sustainability and make sure that the fashion industry can meet that definition as soon as possible.