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Greenwashing and Fairwashing

Posted by Rebecca S on

What are Greenwashing and Fairwashing?

You may have heard of greenwashing in recent years, the term given to when companies use misleading marketing tactics to make themselves seem more sustainable than they actually are. Fairwashing is similar, except in this case brands try to portray their supply chain as being ethical when it isn't, or attempt to distract attention away from their actual labour and business practices by depicting their company as charitable, diverse and 'woke'.

In response to increased consumer demand for a more ethical and sustainable fashion industry due to campaigns like Fashion Revolution Week and Oxfam's Naughty or Nice List, many fast fashion companies have gone into PR crisis management-mode. The disappointing result has been that many brands have tinted their marketing campaigns green without making much meaningful change behind the scenes.

Companies are becoming sneakier with their greenwashing and fairwashing tactics with each new micro-season, and it's becoming increasingly difficult for consumers to figure out which products are truly ethical and sustainable. Here's some helpful tips to help you sort the real eco-friendly and Fair Trade products from the hogwash.

How to Identify Greenwashing and Fairwashing

Here are some common Greenwashing and Fairwashing tactics.

1. Vague or blanket claims like 'ethical' or 'sustainable' without providing further information to back it up.

You know something is fishy when a business uses buzzwords like 'ethical' or 'eco-friendly' but they don't include any actual details about the materials, producers or where their products are made. Some brands like to use lots of warm 'n fuzzy, flowery language about valuing people and caring about the planet, but it's style over substance. Another more subtle greenwashing strategy is using literal green brand colours and natural motifs like leaves and trees on products that would otherwise appear blatantly unsustainable.

Further, many companies are guilty of saying they are 'working towards' a more ethical supply chain but they don't have any concrete goals or evidence of how they are doing this.

Questions to ask:

  • Does the product/brand have any certifications like WFTO Fair Trade, Fairtrade, Fair Trade Association of Australia and New Zealand, GOTS, or another local Fair Trade certification?
  • In the absence of official certifications, has the business provided information about the producers such as the location of their factories/artisans, and do their business practices incorporate the 10 Principles of Fair Trade?
  • What is the brand's rating on Good on You? (This is useful for more well-known brands.)
  • If they don't currently pay workers a living wage or use sustainable materials, do they have a realistic plan of how and when they will begin to do this?

2. Focusing on charitable or environmental initiatives to distract from the company's overall questionable ethics.

One way that corporations try to win consumers over is by making a big deal about the Very Good charitable and eco-friendly things they are doing. This can take the form of recycling programs, partnering with a charity organisation, or heavily promoting an 'eco' collection (which makes up a tiny portion of their entire range). While these things seem good on the surface, for many companies it's a classic attempt at using smoke and mirrors to distract consumers from the company's unethical business practices, such as under-paying workers, polluting waterways, using synthetic fabrics, and over-producing so much clothing that some of it is destined for landfill before it's even worn.

In some cases, the partnership with the charity is over-inflated, making the business seem like a social enterprise when only a tiny portion of profits are going to the cause.

Questions to ask:

  • What are the company's ethics and environmental practices like as a whole?
  • If the brand has a small 'sustainable' or 'fair' collection, what does that say about the products that aren't in that collection?
  • In the case that the products help fund a social or environmental cause (like a charity or not-for-profit organisation), are the products themselves made fairly?
  • Is the charitable partner a registered charity or not-for-profit?
  • What percentage of profits go to the charitable partner?

3. Always conflating 'natural' or 'vegan' with 'sustainable'.

Just because something is natural, doesn't automatically mean it's good for the environment. We must look not only at what a product is made from, but also how it is made or grown. For example, it's important to recognise the difference between conventional cotton and organic cotton when it comes to sustainability. Additionally, viscose is often touted as being eco-friendly because it's made from wood pulp, however the production process is "highly polluting" and there are concerns over whether the wood itself is sourced sustainably. Some viscose manufacturers like EcoVero™ are providing a solution to these problems by ensuring the wood is sustainably sourced and reducing emissions in the production process.

On a similar note, just because something is vegan, doesn't mean it's always eco-friendly. Many fast fashion outlets include vegan products in their 'sustainable' or 'conscious' edits even when the products are made from synthetic materials.

Side note: if a company uses natural materials but is still pumping out fast fashion like there's no tomorrow, it's not sustainable.

Questions to ask:

  • Is the cotton GOTS certified organic?
  • Is the paper, bamboo or wood FSC certified or recycled?
  • Does the viscose come from a more sustainable manufacturer like EcoVero™?
  • What percentage of the product is made from natural or recycled materials?
  • Is the product being labelled 'sustainable' because it's vegan? If so, is the product made from synthetic or natural materials?

4. Portraying marginalised communities in marketing campaigns and outwardly promoting diversity, but not addressing systemic issues.

This point crosses over into what some have called 'woke-washing', but it's closely related to fairwashing. A classic example of this tactic is using images of people of colour, women and members of the LGBTIQ+ community in advertising materials, when there is little or no actual representation of these groups in the business, especially in decision-making roles. Another thing to watch out for is companies participating in social media campaigns for movements like Black Lives Matter and International Women's Day, but all the while exploiting the people of colour and women in developing countries who make their products.

Questions to ask:

  • Does the business have a diverse team, particularly in positions of leadership?
  • Does their supply chain empower women and people of colour or exploit them?

How to Avoid Getting Tricked by Greenwashing and Fairwashing

1. Familiarise yourself with Fair Trade and Organic certifications, and the 10 Principles of Fair Trade.

2. Read the product description or label, and when possible survey the business's website for pages about their ethics, environmental practices, and makers. The more specific the information is about their materials and producers, the better.

3. Do your research in advance and stick to brands you know so you don't get caught out when you're in a rush.

4. Utilise tools like Good on You.

5. Avoid fast fashion brands, even if they claim to be sustainable.

6. Ask questions - email brands or message them on social media asking for more info. If their response is vague or defensive, it's not a good sign.

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