Written by: Hannah Williams

Greenwashing is a term coined by the environmentalist Jay Westervelt in 1986. He used it to describe the act of a company using misleading or vague statements to present the work they are doing to be benefiting the environment much more than it is. An example may be ‘This shirt is made from organic material’ when in actual fact, it is only the buttons that are.

You will likely recognise the phrase above as it is used by many well-known brands that you probably use yourself. It is all too common for the case to be that our favourite fashion brands are guilty of greenwashing as this article will demonstrate.

Greenwashing in Fashion

One of the most common areas that employs greenwashing tactics is the fashion industry. As there is more and more pressure to avoid practices detrimental to the environment whilst also manufacturing and delivering clothes to meet the increasing demands of consumers, many fashion brands appear to have turned to greenwashing to solve their problems.

British Vogue released an article to help its readers sport greenwashing by many popular fashion brands. One of the tips is to understand that vegan does not always mean that the item is a sustainable piece. Often fashion brands will use buzz words such as ‘vegan’ or ‘natural’ which suggests to buyers that the item is more eco-friendly than just a regular dress, for example, however this is not always the case. Vegan clothes are commonly made from synthetic materials that act as an alternative to leather and fur. These materials may then instead be made from things that are almost worse for the environment such as oil, as Harriet Vocking has pointed out.

In order to highlight this in practice, during fashion week, the website ‘Greenwash.com’ was created to show the sheer number of brands that commit greenwashing. One example can be seen with ASOS and their fleece varsity jacket placed in their ‘Responsible Edit’ section. Whilst consumers may purchase this product for a premium under the impression that they are ‘helping’ the environment and encouraging ASOS to continue their goal of reducing the company’s environmental impact, this is not strictly what is happening. The Greenwash website has stripped down this fleece, alongside many other products and has highlighted that the jacket is in actual fact 100% plastic except for the trim. This means that fossil fuels have been employed in its creation and so has harmed the environment in the process. The only thing actually allowing the jacket to be classified as ‘responsible’ is purely its BCI cotton trim, which likely makes up about 2% of the entire jacket.

This is but one example at ASOS of what appears to be greenwashing and it is likely that none of us shoppers would have noticed this.

Greenwashing in Finance

Another industry in which greenwashing is fairly prominent but often looked over is the banking sector. Whilst many banks claim that they are on a mission to go ‘carbon neutral’ or changing their practices to reduce their carbon footprint, at the same time they are investing and supporting the companies that are causing the biggest impact, such as oil or coal companies.

It was reported in Forbes magazine in 2021 that a team of investors, worth around $2.4 trillion, suspect that their bank, HSBC, have been greenwashing their processes as despite presenting themselves as being more eco-friendly, they have continued to fund coal projects globally.HSBC has responded to these allegations by stating that it will focus on providing sustainable financing options for customers and has also reduced, and shall continue to reduce, the carbon footprint of its own operations.

In addition to the banks, other financial institutions have been called out for greenwashing. For example, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund has continued to claim that it will reduce all coal project investments despite accruing most of its wealth from oil.

Again, this is currently a common practice and I suspect it shall continue to be until these companies feel a greater pressure to stop.

Is this being regulated?

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has declared that it shall tightly scrutinise eco-friendly claims made by ASOS and other brands amid concerns that greenwashing is thriving in various industries. The team shall be investigating, amongst other things, statements made by the brands about their standards of being environmentally friendly and evaluate whether these are misleading for customers.

Sarah Cardell, the interim Chief Executive of the CMA has stated that ‘people who want to ‘buy green’ should be able to do so confident that they aren’t being misled’.

Whilst it appears that the CMA’s focus is currently on the fashion industry, it is likely that it will only be a matter of time until investigations will surge through other areas that may be guilty of greenwashing.

Conclusion

Despite the ongoing concerns that our planet shall be reaching a point of no return shortly in regards to the climate crisis, many brands and businesses seem to be failing to make as much of an impact as they could and arguably should be doing. However, it appears that despite being called out by the public and other organisations, little will change for businesses engaging in greenwashing until there are more strict regulations in place to govern their work.

The CMA’s announcement that the fashion industry is going to be under scrutiny suggests a step in the right direction to prevent greenwashing and encourage genuine eco-friendly practices.