If eco-friendly initiatives and carbon emission pledges were always factual, we’d all be living in a carbon neutral paradise by 2030. As brands make environmental promises left, right and centre, it can be difficult to separate the genuinely sustainable from the unachievable, the delusional and the outright deceptive.
Environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term ‘greenwashing’ in 1986, referring specifically to hotels that would encourage guests to reuse their towels ‘to help the environment’ but were in fact keen to reduce their own laundry costs.
Various sources give different definitions of the word, but essentially it refers to companies being untruthful about their environmental efforts, whether through exaggeration or out-and-out dishonesty.
Consuming sustainably is more important now than ever, and greenwashing can defer the efforts of even the most diligent shoppers. There are, however, ways to discern the fraudulent from the forthright.
It’s easy to be astonishingly sustainable when the only people holding your brand to account are your PR department. Often environmental initiatives are incredibly difficult to verify, particularly when they promise to make an impact in far flung or remote parts of the world. Pledging to plant trees in the Amazon is all too straightforward when your consumer base lives 5000 miles away, but the emphasis is entirely on their trust in your brand, and not whether your actions are actually measurable or verified.
Various environmental partners exist and work alongside brands to make sure their environmental commitments are actually implemented. There’s also a number of environmental certifications that can help discern sustainable companies, including B Corp Certification, the Carbon Trust Standard and the Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Standard.
Numerous brands have made lofty environmental claims only to apologetically U-turn or withdraw initiatives months and years later.
After an investigation by Quartz in 2022, fast fashion giant H&M had to remove a scorecard system intended to inform consumers about the sustainability of their products. The investigation found that in some cases “H&M showed data that were the exact opposite of reality.”
The fast fashion industry, alongside that of oil and other non-renewable energy sources, has become symbolic of this kind of greenwashing, of over-promising and under-delivering. For many of these brands, their environmental pledges hinge on the absolute denial that consumption and production must decrease if their carbon footprint is to become smaller.
Awareness vs action
Making a limited edition Earth Day t-shirt doesn’t typically reduce carbon footprint. Adding to a brand’s already broad offering with a new, sustainable collection is literally increasing production unnecessarily. Simply pointing to sustainability doesn’t actually mean a company’s products are sustainable.
For example, French luxury fashion house Hermès faced some criticism over the 2021 reveal of their mushroom leather travel bag. Despite the bag’s sustainable and ethical inspiration, it was found to be neither verifiably cruelty-free nor environmentally friendly.
As consumers vie to shop as sustainably as possible, it’s easy to be drawn into the familiar signs of eco-friendly production. In reality, however, there’s often no correlation, and producing even more goods, even if done with the environment in mind, usually means carbon footprints increase.
Another issue with so many brands making huge environmental pledges is that too often they go unspoken about for years on end, buried deep in the junk folder of their consumers’ Outlook inbox.
Good, consistent communication mean that companies avoid having to make such drastic U-turns as their deadlines edge closer. It also means that consumers feel part of the community of the brands that they buy from.
In turn, producers can build trust between themselves and their customers, which is vital as everybody looks to consume ethically and sustainably.
elliott works with U-Ocean and Greenr to make sure that our carbon-positive status is expertly and measurably delivered. If you recycle your elliotts, we’ll offer you 15% off your next pair. Read more about our sustainable vision and how to recycle your elliotts here.