Such “false claims” of environmental responsibility, as the nonprofit put it in a recent report, are merely distractions from a lack of meaningful action. And without solid evidence to back up these assertions, fashion’s biggest names are “guilty of greenwashing.”
In fact when Greenpeace investigated a dozen of these “self-assessed marketing labels,” it found that most did not meet the criteria for credibility. “Circularity,” it noted, is a “myth,” with take-back programs mainly passing the waste problem onto the global South and any use of recycled content heavily relying on plastic inputs from other sectors, such as PET bottles, rather than textile-to-textile reclamation. Green marketing, the report said, is mostly that—marketing. At best, the result is more perplexing than helpful. At worst, it’s greenwashing.
Greenpeace identified some common areas of concern, of which the “misleading narrative” about circularity is only one. Many of these schemes, it said, lack supply chain traceability and instead lean on controversial impact-measuring tools. Any initiatives they might highlight can be on the smaller side, lacking context in terms of the “larger volumes of business as usual.” A number of brands also present the production of fiber blends such as polycotton as “greener” because they include recycled content, despite the fact that mixed fibers are challenging to recycle at scale.
Plus, tags that feature in-house eco-labels, the report noted, can make them seem like they’re a form of certification, which can be confusing to customers, particularly when coupled with a dearth of third-party verified compliance with the top standards for environmental and social performance.
Such labels are likely on their way out if draft legislation to stop misleading claims is any indication. Last week, the European Parliament backed, by a wide margin, a move to allow only sustainability labels based on official certification schemes or established by public authorities. It also supported a move to outlaw misleading practices such as making claims about the entire product if they only pertain to a part of it.
“The jungle of false environmental claims will end as only certified and substantiated ecological claims will be permitted,” Croatian rapporteur Biljana Borzan, a member of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, said after the vote.
Beyond self-assessed labels are other “low-key” forms of promotion that could also encounter pitfalls. Nike, for instance, touts its products as being made with “sustainable materials,” a claim that could end up being litigated in court. Puma has several “Re:” collections as part of its “Forever Better” strategy, which Greenpeace said is useful for experimenting with innovation, but needs scaling up to have “any significance and avoid greenwashing.”
That’s not to say brands should stay mum about their good work, the organization said.
“While it’s hard not to be concerned that efforts such as these—whether they’re part of a promotional label or a more general communication about sustainability or responsibility—are simply a fig leaf hiding a multitude of sins, there is definitely a need for companies to communicate their credentials which should not be discouraged,” the report said. “This just needs to be done more consistently, using independently verified standards rather than in-house subjective assessments, or industry-based assessment tools and initiatives.”
Most important, any communication should consider the aim of shifting linear business models towards ones where materials, workers and the environment are “valued more than the volumes that are sold or profits for shareholders,” Greenpeace said. Besides “closing the loop,” brands should also work to “slow the flow,” meaning producing fewer products of better quality and extending their use through reuse, repair, rental and upcycling.
Some of the brands namechecked by Greenpeace took issue with their characterization.
H&M, which dropped its “Conscious Choice” moniker, in part, due to an admonishment from Dutch regulators that it could potentially mislead, said that its sustainability work has “never been about ‘greenwashing,’ [which] categorically goes against what we stand for.” The retailer said it’ll continue to invest in competence development and improving internal data flows to ensure that its product claims are as “transparent and accurate as possible.”
Tesco said that its Made Mindfully symbol helps it communicate to its customers about how the raw materials in its products are produced, grown or made with less environmental impact when compared with conventional raw materials.
A representative from Primark pointed out that Primark Cares builds on 15 years of effort and that it remains committed to “keep challenging ourselves to improve how we communicate in this space,” including introducing a glossary of terms and using QR codes in stores to “help guide and educate” its clientele. Later this year, the Dublin-headquartered chain will provide further details around the minimum percentage content of fibers required to qualify under Primark Cares.
But brands, the majority of which still have minimal visibility into their supply chains, may struggle with this heightened attention on environmental claims, said Divya Demato, CEO and co-founder of San Francisco-based sustainability consultancy GoodOps. The EU aside, the U.S. is poised for its own greenwashing crackdown via an updated version of the Federal Trade Commision’s Green Guides. The United Kingdom has also put potential claims twisters on notice.
“Companies who try to tell their sustainability story as a marketing technique will now be under the watchful eye of the government as well as consumers who may opt to bring legal action, either for clear violations or simply for being misled,” she told Sourcing Journal.
Demato anticipates more eco-labels, like Decathlon’s Ecodesign, Mango’s Committed and Zara’s Join Life before them, to go through a further “culling process,” especially if they’re built on a surface-level understanding of supply chain operations, such as self-assessments or unsubstantiated emissions claims. If little can be verified, it will make “many of the existing marks and labels useless to brands, thus rendering them extinct,” she said.
Greenpeace described greenwashing as a “symptom of the bigger disease”: the “destructive system of the linear fast fashion business model which can never be sustainable.”
“If fashion brands honestly want to address their environmental and social impacts they need to work towards creating slow, circular fashion that respects environmental boundaries and the rights and well-being of people,” it added.
George Harding-Rolls, campaign manager at the Changing Markets Foundation, a corporate watchdog that has campaigned extensively about greenwashing, agreed with the sentiment.
“Fast fashion will never be sustainable, yet this report reveals just how hard it is trying and failing to deceive consumers, policymakers and investors into believing otherwise,” he told Sourcing Journal. “The proliferation of claims and depth of deception by these companies to entice conscious consumers to buy their products demonstrates clearly how much of a smokescreen corporate greenwashing is creating.”
ESG, SDG, CER, GRI, FSC, LCA, WELL Compliance, Sustainability, Greenpeace, greenwashing, H&M, Primark, Tesco Read More
Jasmin Malik Chua