Companies with strong ethical foundations might sound like a natural way to avoid greenwashing, but active steps still need to be taken to sidestep performative processes.
In order to shine a light on the disingenuous practice of greenwashing, we need to take a three-pronged approach. Firstly, we need to fully understand what it is and why it has become so prevalent, then we can look at the steps we can take as company founders and informed consumers to eradicate it.
What is greenwashing?
Let’s not dress this up. Greenwashing is a decades-old deceptive advertising methodology that makes consumers believe they are buying a more eco-friendly and conscious product when in reality, it is no more ethical than regular lines. Despite offering no tangible benefits, these products are often priced higher than comparable items and are emblazoned with images and colour schemes (often actually green) designed to infer allegiance to environmentalism. The question is, who participates and why?
Now that consumers are becoming increasingly aware of and motivated by ethical and eco considerations, big companies are jumping on the trend, but in a superficial way. The operational costs involved in making a traditional manufacturing model genuinely more earth-friendly are often staggering, so household brands instead choose to pay lip service to the ideals and simply redesign their packaging to look a little greener. We’ve seen it throughout numerous sectors, from cleaning products to the fashion industry and even digital product or service offerings.
As ethical professionals and consumers, what can we do to lessen both our environmental impact and the power of greenwashing? As it happens, quite a lot.
How can you avoid greenwashing?
Companies founded on strong ethical foundations should, on the face of it, be more committed than others to be a force of good for the environment. In reality, even the best-laid plans can fall a little flat in the face of increased manufacturing costs but it’s important to stay true to an original driving ethos of being more environmentally friendly.
1. Use ethical materials
If you launch a brand with green claims, you need to ensure that they are fulfilled, or your progressiveness will be called out as performative, right from the start. Yes, it might take a little longer to get to market, but if those few extra months mean that you find better-recycled materials to use, a CFC-free option that you hadn’t heard of before or logistical partners that are more aligned to your ethics, it will be worth it. Taking longer and being a genuinely invested company is the lesser of two evils and while some might say it’s better to launch and make the changes as you go, that sets you off on a bad precedent of holding trends above systemic change. And that’s the crux of the matter here.
2. Employ clear branding
Greenwashing is all about pretending to care. It requires a basic level of investment into clever green marketing techniques and little else in terms of improved business practices. Genuinely ethical companies seek to be the change they hope will become mainstream, regardless of increased costs and timescales. If you subscribe to environmental stewardship for genuine reasons, use your branding to transmit this message. Make your reasoning known and prolific, not to mention fully quantifiable.
3. Don’t buy from known offenders
We are all consumers of something, be it food, clothes or other products and services and en masse, we are an imposing collective. Or we could be, if we take the time to invest in companies that are demonstrably working hard to combat their contributions to environmental issues. The only way this will happen is through transparent manufacturing processes, clear information and encouraging a shift in the mindset of key demographics. Let’s take fashion as a key example.
The traditional fashion industry model is centered around a ‘fast fashion’ ethos. The year is split into seasons and within those, trends are decided upon and we are expected to blindly follow. Only these trends seem to be lasting a matter of weeks, meaning that the cheaper fashion outlets are churning out gargantuan numbers of inexpensive and low-quality goods that consumers are almost encouraged to simply throw away or discard after a few perfunctory wears. Because the garment was so cheap to buy, throwing it away doesn’t seem like a waste, until we witness the shocking images of landfill sites piled high with clothing that could have been recycled, upcycled, donated, or worn a lot more. Ethical fashion brands are looking to usurp this fast and disposable mindset that has filtered into mainstream consumption by shifting the focus onto sustainability.
4. Save up longer and buy better quality
How are environmentally conscious companies making a change? By investing in new recycled materials, promoting healthier fabrics such as organic cotton and looking for non-virgin fibres that can be turned into high-quality pieces with extensive lifespans. This last point is critical because earth-friendly materials are notoriously more expensive to use, therefore they drive end product costs up as well, but if they can be enjoyed for longer, there is an equilibrium. If only consumers would be open to it. And herein lies the biggest problem: convincing somebody to spend £30 on a t-shirt that will last years, over a £3 version that looks similar but will only be good for cleaning rags within months.
Change takes time, commitment, and investment from everybody. The only way to avoid greenwashing is to call it out when we see it and ensure that we don’t buy products from companies that are guilty of it. Only by creating and choosing brands that have proven their eco-credentials run deeper than a packaging redesign will we see a positive impact on the environmental damage that we should all be trying to repair.