Greenwashing: What Is It, How To Spot It, and Why That H&M Dress Isn't Sustainable
Earlier this week, H&M released a new item and it’s ‘sustainable’. Well, the version of ‘sustainable’ which H&M chooses to ascribe to, which in normal terms roughly translates to ‘not sustainable at all’. This is just another classic case of greenwashing by one of the biggest corporate fashion giants in the world. But what exactly is greenwashing, and how can you spot it for yourselves?
What is Greenwashing?
As put by Business News Daily, ‘greenwashing is when a company or organization spends more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally friendly than on minimizing their environmental impact.’ It is the ultimate, corporate farce.
Origins of the term
The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined in 1986 by Jay Westerveld, following several largescale ad campaigns by companies notorious for pollution which attempted to green-wash over the massive environmental flaws in their organisations with images of fluffy animals. One particularly infamous example was that of Chevron, an oil company named the second-most polluting in the world as of 2019, who created an advert in the 1980s showing their employees cuddling the cute wildlife that their very practices functioned to destroy. Since then, they have become the ‘gold standard’ of greenwashing.
Why do companies do it?
Money. According to a 2015 survey, 66% of global consumers said they would be willing to pay more for ‘sustainable’ products – among millennials, this number jumps even higher, to a whopping 72%. As a result, rather than actually bettering their sustainability practices, the vast majority of large corporations have focussed their energy on claiming sustainability while continuing to pollute the environment en masse (ahem, H&M).
The fashion industry: the actual figures
The ugly truth is, no matter many recycled materials or clever ad campaigns you throw at it, the fashion industry will never be sustainable. The speed that often provides its USP necessitates lax environmental policies, underpaid or underage labour (or even slavery), and massive amounts of fossil fuels. Here are a few shocking facts to illustrate my point:
The fashion industry is the second biggest polluter in the world, only topped by the oil industry.
The fashion sector produces over 1 billion items of clothing every year.
The industry is responsible for 5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions – equivalent to the entire worldwide emissions of the aviation industry, or all emissions from Russia.
Synthetic polymers (which make clothes last longer) have to be manually produce in plants which release nitrous oxide into the atmosphere – nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent than CO2.
Synthetic polymers release microplastics in the water system when they are washed – we then consume these microplastics, about 70,000 annually.
Massively water intensive – it takes 2700 litres of water to make one cotton t shirt, and to make matters worse cotton is only grown in hot regions where droughts are more likely. Dyed fabric also requires about 200 tons of water to produce.
Exploits the global south, where environmental laws are not as strict, meaning waste can be routinely dumped into water sources.
Discarded clothing regularly ends up in landfill – in the US, 84% of annual landfill waste is clothing that is still perfectly wearable – polyester takes 200 years to decompose, nylon takes 30-40 years, and while they decompose they release microplastics into the soil.
How to spot greenwashing: a step-by-step guide
There are several factors to be careful of when shopping at fashion companies, but here is how I usually spot greenwashing:
Log onto the company’s website and see if they have a section on sustainability – if they don’t they probably aren’t very sustainable, however, just because a website devotes a lot of space to sustainability also doesn’t mean it’s good to go.
If they have a sustainability statement, read it – look for buzzwords like ‘organic’, ‘natural’, ‘vegan’, ‘palm-oil free’, and ‘plant-based’, as these don’t equal sustainable. Also notice if the statement contains a lot of big talk, but no do, i.e. they are telling you about how good their supply chain is without telling you where their factories are and who their suppliers are. Plus, if they’re just listing facts about how clothes recycling works, then that’s not sustainable either.
Once you’ve read through the sustainability statement, give the company a quick google search using wording like, ‘[company name] child labour’, ‘[company name] greenwashing', ‘[company name] modern slavery’, and ‘[company name] greenhouse gases’, which should either turn up some past accusations or be completely clean – note that just because a company hasn’t received much media coverage for its negative effects, this doesn’t mean they are sustainable, it just means that no one has uncovered malpractice yet.
To get an even better picture of a company’s impact, check the Fashion Transparency Index 2020 or the Good On You app, which shows each company’s rating (if it’s a fashion company); the WWF Timber Score Card (if it’s a furniture or book retailer); the WWF Palm Oil Buyers Score Card (for a range of companies from food service, supermarkets, to hair and skincare brands); the Global Slavery Index (to see how countries and companies are committing to eradicating modern slavery). But of course remember, transparency does not equal sustainability!
After combing through all the evidence and finding less than desirable statistics, see if there is a local shop or independent seller who sells what you’re looking for, since smaller, local businesses have less of an impact that global brands.
H&M: a worrying example of greenwashing done well
Worryingly, even if you go through all of those steps meticulously, H&M (and its daughter companies, Monki, Weekday, COS, &OtherStories, Arket, and Afound) still fairs pretty well in terms of ‘sustainability’. Logging onto H&M’s website you will see their massive sustainability section, complete with claims of corporate responsibility and those all-important buzzwords. According to them, the fashion giant has committed to becoming 100% ‘climate positive’ by 2040 through switching to renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency in its supply chain. It even claims it will be carbon neutral and using 100% recycled plastic or sustainable materials by 2030! They even have a ‘conscious’ collection made of recycled materials and consumer textile waste, and you can even drop off your old H&M clothes in in-store recycling bins! Wow, fantastic – except it’s not.
While boasting that they use recycled materials in much of their clothing, the actuality is that only 1% of collected clothing can be used as recycled fibres – that wouldn’t look attractive on an ad campaign. In fact, due to the levels of mass-production in the fast fashion industry, it would take 12 years for H&M to recycle and reuse just 1,000 tons of clothing waste to make new clothing due to technological limitations, while it produces the same volume of clothes in just a few days.
Despite being lauded as an ‘ethical’ company, H&M has also come under fire for allowing female garment workers to face daily gendered abuse, even rape, in their factories. As of 2019, it doesn’t even pay all of its workers a living wage, despite promising to do so by 2018 - pretty horrifying when you realise H&M’s former CEO (until May 2020), Stefan Persson, has a net worth of $16.3 billion as of January this year, making him Sweden’s richest person. The new CEO, Karl-Johan Persson (who just happens to be Stefan’s son), is also a billionaire – funny that?
As a result, accusations of H&M’s greenwashing date back to 2016, as many suggest the company is misleading consumers into thinking that what they’re getting is sustainable, which in turn allows them to hike up prices of cheap-to-produce products. But, despite the facts, this clever marketing strategy has undoubtedly worked; net sales have seen a pretty steady increase since 2014, with 2019 seeing a rise from $23.2 billion the previous year to $24.3 billion, though I would argue that coronavirus will change not only this sales pattern, but also consumption habits in the fashion industry.