Greenwashing: Short-term benefits, long-term damage


Alberto Bailin Co-founder of Lienzo

Photo by Jeremy Bishop

Greenwashing: brands using vague marketing terms to communicate a product's "sustainable" bona fides, whether that relates to carbon emissions, water use, fabric composition, or production. What may benefit you today may, and surely will, harm you tomorrow. 

As consumers become increasingly aware of the environmental and social impact of the fashion industry, brands need to rethink how they communicate their sustainability efforts. This is why several brands exaggerate their environmental credentials by offering vague or misleading information about the products they sell. Sustainability claims can take several forms: from using a logo or certification to create the impression that a product is more sustainable than it really is to making broad, vague claims that revolve around 'buzz-words', like 'carbon-neutral', 'organic', 'eco-friendly' or 'responsible'. These words seemingly make a big statement but offer no practical or deeper meaning of what makes the product or its manufacturing process sustainable to consumers. 

Greenwashing thus hinders the drive for true sustainable change in the fashion industry, as it creates a false sense of progress among brands, manufacturers, and consumers alike.

What some of these brands might not be considering when making these misleading claims is that, while they might bring short-term benefits, they undermine trust and damage brand reputation in the long-term, which is something that takes years and fortunes to recover. A very well-known example is H&M, a brand that has been releasing “conscious collections” that consumers are increasingly recognizing as misleading. The Swedish company is creating an unfair business practice for themselves, that is bringing them negative consequences in terms of sales growth and more importantly, consumer perception and brand reputation.

So, the question is how this type of misleading practice could be addressed to prevent brands from continuing to do the same. What can be done to combat such a widespread and complex phenomenon? The answer is clear, well-designed legislation and regulations. Thankfully, some of these regulations are already in place and many more are in the making. 

Brands who really want to prevent greenwashing practices, should be taking into account the following guidelines: sustainability claims must be truthful and accurate, claims must be clear and unambiguous, claims must not omit or hide relevant information, and claims must consider the full life cycle of the product or service. These claims must also be backed up with reliable and available evidence. In January 2021, in the Netherlands, the Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) released “five rules of thumb” for sustainability claims. The five rules explain how companies can ensure their sustainability claims are clear, correct, and not misleading for consumers. Following the launch of the rules, the ACM launched an investigation into the 170 largest local businesses in various sectors, including 70 fashion brands, at the beginning of May 2021. Those who were found guilty of greenwashing following their investigation faced the risk of getting a fine, which ran as high as 900.000 euros per breach of a rule or a percentage of your company turnover - a substantial hit to any brand. 

This example helped us illustrate what the future may hold for other brands operating in countries that have not yet published this type of rules but that we can say with certainty that they will not be long in coming. Indeed, the EU and other countries are ramping up stricter laws to help consumer authorities fight greenwashing. Here at Lienzo, we are really looking forward to this.