What is Greenwashing? How to Spot and Avoid Greenwashing in eCommerce
Updated: Jun 22, 2021
As a digital creative agency, one of the big questions we tackle is how we can be as green as possible. M&P is comprised of mostly millennials, and in our lifetimes we’ve seen a major transition in eCommerce from fast fashion and instant gratification to more sustainable, planet-conscientious practices.
At least, that’s how it seems on the surface.
Unfortunately, many eCommerce corporations now operate under the guise of “sustainable” and “good for the environment” but continue to use wasteful and exploitative practices. This is called greenwashing—it’s as scary as it sounds and unfortunately it’s rampant. Here are a few things to know about greenwashing in fashion and beauty, how to spot it, and how to avoid it.
What is greenwashing?
Oxford Languages defines greenwashing as “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.” A recent greenwashing faux pas is the South Korean beauty brand Innisfree defending its “I’m A Paper Bottle” packaging after it was revealed that the bottles are still plastic but wrapped in paper.
In the beauty and fashion industries, greenwashing is extremely popular and corporations use it to prey on potential customers who want to be environmentally conscious but also want to save a buck. The ethical persona of the minimalist fashion company Everlane recently came under fire, too. After multiple former employees came forward and testified that Everlane was guilty of instilling anti-unionization efforts as well as unethical production practices, the company’s green image was shattered. H&M also touts a green persona but has been criticized for years about pollution, waste and manufacturing conditions.
Image by fluter.
Some companies such as Lush sit on the fence but are transparent about business decisions. For example, according to agroecology advocate Holly Rose, Lush is categorically cruelty-free, uses dissolvable and recyclable packaging, is philanthropic, and supports Fair Trade, but isn’t 100% organic, and doesn’t necessarily check out safe on the Environmental Working Group. That said, Lush makes a discernible effort and doesn’t mask its choices.
How do you detect greenwashing by companies?
A study published by Environmental Health Perspectives in 2010 concluded that 98% of the products they surveyed were guilty of greenwashing. While environmental progress has been made since then, many eCommerce businesses are guilty of promoting products that encourage backward thinking. For example, why buy a new reusable bag when you can reuse a bag you already have? Why buy “recyclable plastic” when it has been shown that most plastic can’t be recycled? And lastly, does the price for the product seem too good to be true? Likely, it is.
While slow fashion (a practice that respects the people who make the clothes, the animals the clothes are made from, and the environment the manufacturing affects) is usually more expensive, you can consider the ethical choice you are making and expect to enjoy a product longer. Fast fashion is usually cheaply made and cuts corners (sorry for the pun) in regards to workplace conditions and materials.
Before you run your credit card, you can ruminate on these few things that will help you avoid greenwashing and make conscientious eCommerce decisions:
If the label or website mentions sustainability but lists no data or reasons why that is, it likely isn’t honest.
If the content on the website is generic, vague, or doesn’t feature photographs or information about the people who make the product, it likely isn’t ethical.
If the price of the product is far lower than what you would pay someone you knew to make it, then its manufacturer may use exploitative practices.
How Can Fashion Be Ethical and Sustainable?
Going off the above, some ways to encourage sustainability in your own life is to minimize consumption in general. Only run your credit card when you need something—or if you want something, stew on it for some time to make sure it will really bring you joy.
Image by SECONDSGURU.
Secondly, buy used or locally-made when possible. As a Seattle creative agency, we love shopping on the west coast. Some of our favorite verifiably sustainable eCommerce fashion and beauty brands include the Girlfriend Collective, an ethically made activewear brand that celebrates diversity of all kinds, Prairie Underground, a beloved west coast apparel manufacturer with super-transparent sourcing and practices, and Rue Santé, a green Seattle beauty and wellness brand that prioritizes self-worth.
As a creative marketing agency, it’s in our blood to want to support eCommerce brands that have values we can get behind. As enthusiasts for true sustainability that possess uncanny B.S. detectors, we’ve gotten pretty good at sniffing out greenwashing—now hopefully you will, too.
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