Sustainable! Eco-friendly! Green! With every swipe or click of our smart devices, our screens are inundated with a torrent of environmentally responsible buzzwords.
As the world embraces the pursuit of greener practices, Millennial and Gen Z consumers are spearheading the shift towards corporate sustainability. This rising interest, coupled with increased purchasing power in the younger generations, has inevitably forced businesses to wake up and smell the organic fair trade matcha green tea.
Whilst many manufacturers appear to be catering to the needs of their increasingly environmentally savvy clientele, others are intentionally using delusory tactics to jump on the bandwagon. Where fashion and beauty are concerned, greenwashing is creating even denser smokescreens for industries that are already shrouded in assumptions and ambiguity.
So, what is it?
This common practice refers to the promotion of green initiatives that aim to create an environmentally “woke” public image without the implementation of any genuinely sustainable business practices that effectively minimize adverse environmental impact. More often than not, it includes misleading customers about the actual benefits of a product or practice through disingenuous advertising or unsubstantiated claims. However, an unprecedented number of companies are now working to engage customers in their sustainability efforts; but scattered amongst the do-gooding many, are the insidious few that are simultaneously maintaining unsustainable core business models.
The term “greenwashing” was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, on a trip to Samoa as an undergrad student. After a brief stay at one of the largest resorts on the South Pacific island, he recognized the duplicity of hotels that did not employ any stringent measures to protect the surrounding ecosystems, whilst at the same time, encouraged patrons to reuse towels. A hypocrisy that drove him to write an entire essay on the matter.
Now more than three decades on, this once simple term has taken on new dimensions. From strategically placed green badges to conscience-pleasing, pro-environment jargon, fashion retailers are keen to appeal to a shrewd customer base that’s drawn to ethical purchases and environmentally-sound clothing. By using vague terminology or conveniently omitting relevant information, fashion brands can seem much “greener” than they really are. In a recently publicized case, several companies claimed that they sold eco-friendly bamboo-clothing when in fact, they sold rayon produced from bamboo which is typically made using toxic chemicals in a process that emits hazardous pollutants into the air. In an attempt to help curb these false claims, the United States Federal Trade Commission now requires companies to clarify, listing “rayon made from bamboo” when items are not made from natural bamboo.
The world of beauty is even more of an eco-minefield, fraught with inaccuracies and lack of transparency. As consumers become more health conscious and aware of what they put on and, in their bodies, capitalizing on the sustainable beauty market is one of the most obvious ways to cash in on this rising trend. And with the global skincare market alone predicted to reach over 190 billion USD by 2025, it’s no surprise that brands are going all out to claim their piece of the green pie.
The beauty industry is teeming with unregulated terms that make greenwashing a walk in the park for unethical manufacturers. Astonishingly, depending on where you are in the world, it’s almost entirely unregulated, and the natural sector even more so, putting consumers and the integrity of the industry at risk. There are no set legal definitions or boundaries for terms like “natural”, “naturally-derived”, “renewable”, “sustainable”, “synthetic”, “eco-friendly” or even “organic”. And even more alarmingly, brands are rarely ever held accountable for lacking evidence to back up these claims. For example, in the current state of beauty bedlam, a product only needs to contain 1% organic ingredients to be called organic, regardless of the components of the other 99%.
Avoiding greenwashing and becoming an environmentally responsible consumer requires research and due diligence. It’s key to look beyond the fluffy terminology and green catchphrases used by brands across the board, and to search for solid evidence and numbers that support their claims. Companies that are committed to sustainable practices are often defined by their transparency and science-backed targets, making their facts and figures freely available on their online platforms. Thankfully, both industries offer a wide range of resources and tools that make data gathering a manageable task. The Higg Materials Sustainability Index compares the environmental impact of different textiles used in the manufacture of clothes, whilst the Transparency Index by Fashion Revolution features information from global brands about their supply chains, production lines and their social and environmental effects.
For beauty, industry-standard certifications are a good indicator of the legitimacy of any claims being made. Look out for a seal of approval from a world-renowned certifying body such as The Soil Association, Ecocert, NaTrue or COSMOS to ensure that the product you’re using adheres to a high standard of sustainability and uses ingredients that respect the environment.
Greenwashing may appear to have taken on new forms in recent times, but it’s clear that the growing demand for sustainable products has instigated a cultural shift in society’s collective mindset, ushering in a unified approach to environmental reform.
This feature was originally published in the July 2021 issue of Sorbet Magazine.