Is it possible for an environmentally sustainable brand to scale up without greenwashing?

Most designers and brand owners dream about having an internationally recognized label that makes a handsome profit. But for brands that claim to be environmentally sustainable, achieving that dream may contradict the values their companies are built on. Are brands at risk of greenwashing if they pursue growth too aggressively? Does an environmentally sustainable brand have to be small by nature?

For brands to be authentically environmentally sustainable, they need to stop promoting excessive consumption.

Overconsumption of material items is at the root of our environmental conundrum. We are stripping the planet of its natural resources faster than they can be replenished and we are creating unthinkable amounts of pollution by turning these resources into products then shipping them all around the world only to be disposed of a short time later. If we want to solve issues like deforestation, global warming, and ocean pollution, we need to start by consuming less “stuff”. Brands can take the first step by encouraging their customers to shop only for what they need. Of course, this may hurt a brand’s profits, but their dedication to the planet will attract the right consumers for the right reasons.

A brand that produces new clothes and calls itself environmentally sustainable is already walking a fine line between honest marketing and greenwashing.

By letting consumption happen naturally instead of being pushed into excess, brands are not just caring for the environment, but they are also sidestepping accusations of greenwashing — marketing something as good for the planet when it is not. Shopping secondhand has been touted repeatedly as the best way to consume sustainably, but brands that are selling new products are trying to convince consumers that they too can be sustainable. A company that can prove it is prioritizing the environment in its operations will be in the best position to win over customers. Remaining small and passing up opportunities to scale up is a good way for brands to show that profits do not control their decisions. In the end, consumers are a lot more likely to believe marketing claims that come from a small and local brand rather than one that seems greedy and money-driven.


Brands, like Allbirds, are trying to justify their growth strategy, but some consumers are skeptical.

Allbirds is an excellent example of a company that has continued to grow and expand without compromising its values, at least that was until the brand announced it would start selling clothes. The sustainable shoe brand has ventured into accessories like socks and underwear since its launch in 2014 but recently added clothing like t-shirts, sweaters, and jackets to its inventory as well. The brand founders justified these additions saying they were trying to create something that is better than what is already on the market. However, consumers were skeptical of this, especially since there are brands like For Days, which specializes in recycled and returnable circular t-shirts — a more environmentally-friendly concept than Allbirds non-circular t-shirts. For the time being, Allbirds is just trialing clothing, and the expansion may end up being a failure, in which case the brand would possibly scrap the growth in inventory and focus on reaching new customers to buy their highly-rated shoes instead.


Commentary:

There is no blanket “yes” or “no” answer to the question posed in this article. Some brands can scale up and increase their sales without compromising their core principles, while other brands will end up misleading customers and greenwashing their products. Which category a brand falls into is dependent on what they offer, how quickly they grow, and what sales tactics they use. A brand that: offers unique products, — Allbirds socks — grows slowly and steadily, and encourages sales to happen at a natural pace, will be able to scale up and maintain its environmental sustainability claim. A brand that: offers more of the same, — Allbirds t-shirts — grows too quickly, and pushes sales using price reductions to move inventory, is crossing over the greenwashing line.

The real question that should be asked here is why brands want to scale up at all? The New York Times just published a piece on the growing desire for brands to remain small, pointing out that there are plenty of talented designers who don’t want to become the next Marc Jacobs or Stella McCartney. Right now, especially, small brands and independent designers are able to better navigate the multitude of crises this year has thrown at the fashion industry. Brands should be overjoyed if they still have the freedom and flexibility to make rapid changes to their operations, because those are the businesses that will survive this. Medium and large brands, and even a few luxury labels, are struggling to adapt quickly enough, and as a result, they are being forced to reduce the size of their companies anyway. Maybe profitable brands should just be happy with their success and instead of trying to monopolize a sector of the industry, let other small brands have their chance to shine as well.