So the skies are on fire, we’re existing in the “age of pandemics”, and instances of climate injustice are popping up more than those annoyingly unwanted Reels on Instagram Explore. We’ve got enough on our plate. And especially as we embrace our inner introverts, the materialistic trappings of consumerism are slowly evolving into the realisation that we don’t really need that much stuff anymore.
To put it simply, the pandemic has made us all slightly more sustainable. And it’s not just because we’re buying less. It’s also because the pandemic has jolted us to re-prioritise our lives for the better. In fact, a World Economic Forum survey of more than 21,000 people in 28 countries found that nine out of 10 people want the world to change significantly in a “Great Reset” call for consumer products that are sustainable as well as equitable in their impact.
Meanwhile, an Accenture and Consumer Pulse survey tracking how people’s behaviour has changed in the pandemic found that 82 percent of consumers surveyed are making more sustainable choices.
While young consumers with disposable incomes, also known as Gen Z, have always favoured brands that are more ethical and ecologically conscious, the pandemic has its own host of problems to sift through.
We’re faced with a massive single-use plastic problem. And it gets even worse when you consider that face masks and shields are biohazardous waste, and need to be disposed off accordingly. The inevitable piling on of microplastics has, in turn, made consumers ask for packaging that is more sustainable.
But while the pandemic has made us go from living our best lives to doing what’s best to keep ourselves, and probably our planet, alive, the economic meltdown has brands reverting to strategies that focus more on getting by than doing good.
“Concerns that were once dominant within the industry — from sustainable materials sourcing to carbon reduction to workers’ rights — have been relegated to secondary considerations while businesses scramble to manage short-term economic distress,” states a joint report from Boston Consulting Group, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and Higg Co.
The global economic downturn means businesses are getting desperate to cash in on consumer sentiments in any way they can. But as brands who built their strategies off diminished standards of living realise their consumers are demanding more, the primary objective becomes marketing the hell out of a product without chipping away at potential profits.
So we’re caught in a complex conundrum of consumers who want to make sure what they buy is good for the earth in the long term, and brands who want to prioritise what’s good for them in the short term. And toeing the fine line between these differing goals is a dubious marketing strategy that tries to appease both: Greenwashing.
A term coined in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, greenwashing is when companies deliberately glorify the environmental and ethical advantages of their products. This usually involves brands sprinkling catchwords like “biodegradable”, “recycled”, “eco-friendly” and “organic”, without actually explaining with full transparency how their products are protecting against environmental degradation.
One of the biggest problem child examples when it comes to greenwashing is H&M. When the Swedish clothing giant launched their Conscious Collection in 2019, they were quick to market their organic cotton shirts, recycled polyester pants and Tencel jackets, all the while avoiding specifying exactly what made these materials better for the environment.
But H&M isn’t the only one guilty of greenwashing.
“It’s near impossible to single out a few brands for greenwashing, without letting others off the hook,” said Bronwyn Seier, a spokesperson from Fashion Revolution, a not-for-profit venture that aims to hold the fashion industry accountable about their workers and supply chains. “I say this because the fashion industry’s rampant unsustainability is a systemic issue.” Seier was quick to point out that brands often use manipulative language to mislead the consumer into thinking they are making more environmentally conscious decisions.
“For one brand, this might translate to recycled polyester, which while better than its virgin counterpart, still has serious consequences on our waterways in the form of microplastics. For another brand, this might mean using only organic cotton, deadstock materials or more innovative and niche eco materials. Without a common understanding of what terms like ‘sustainable materials’ equate to, it’s difficult to hold brands to account.”
While the fashion industry remains one of the most avid users of greenwashing terms, the issue runs deeper than affordable clothing manufactured at the cost of the environment.
Automobile giant BMW was greenwashing it when they claimed their electric cars were “zero-emission”, despite only having smaller petrol engines than before.
In June this year, watch brand Swatch relaunched its iconic 80s watch model with “bio-material”. But while its strap was made from bioplastic derived from castor seeds, other parts continued to use metal and silicon, both non-biodegradable materials.
In July, fast food giant Burger King did it when they said they would use meat from cows with 33 percent less methane by feeding them lemongrass, failing to address the fact that this would ideally only reduce emissions by 5 or 10 percent.
Even U.S. President Donald Trump tends to indulge in greenwashing when he says he “cares about the environment”, despite all evidence pointing otherwise.
The Rainforest Alliance, a non-profit with a mission statement to hold businesses accountable, was sued over allegations of misleading marketing, and criticisms in their auditing practices for their environmental protection certification.
“A lot of brands market their products as ‘organic’, but that does not mean they are sustainable,” Bhamini Jain, an environmental educator who champions sustainability, told VICE. Jain explained that even when a product is marketed with “natural ingredients”, it could also mean that only one or a handful of the ingredients in there are naturally derived, while the synthetic ingredients don’t get a mention. “Cotton is organic, but not sustainable. Similarly, bio-plastic is not necessarily better than using plastic, because ultimately it depends on how these materials are recycled,” she said. Jain pointed out how these buzzwords became an important part of how brands marketed face masks, despite concerns that they would increase the amount of bio-hazardous and single-use plastic waste in the environment.
And the issue is only getting worse as brands wake up and realise their consumers are demanding and willing to spend more on socially and environmentally conscious products.
“There is definitely a shift in the purchasing habits and they [Gen Z and millennials] are asking more questions,” Harriet Vocking, chief brand officer for Eco Age, an advertising agency that helps brands design sustainable campaigns, told VICE. “They want transparency and are choosing brands based on these values.” Vocking points out that in many cases, brands who use terms like “green” and “ethical” are probably not as environmentally conscious as they claim to be, unless they actually pinpoint the specifics of what makes them more sustainable.
“Greenwashing is often a way for companies who overproduce to shift attention away from their supply chains,” Gaia Rattazzi, an 18-year-old environment student from Italy, who educates people about environmental consciousness through her Instagram page @Ssustainably_, told VICE. These brands, instead of acknowledging that their workers may not get living wages, might talk about using organic materials.
Rattazzi theorises that brands who want to engage in diversionary tactics will then create elaborate campaigns promoting specific, more sustainable approaches while neglecting to be completely transparent about their supply chains. “Social media makes it easier for brands to market themselves as sustainable by putting out vague statements,” she stated, pointing out how the tendency for young consumers to favour bite-sized content on visual platforms like Instagram makes it easier for brands to spin the sustainable narrative without getting into the details.
However, Rattazzi is optimistic that the visibility that social media platforms offer can also serve as an important tool of transparency. “Social media is also a great tool to ask these brands questions and hold them accountable,” she says, adding that it’s important for each of us to be vigilant about how much of their production efforts and supply chain details brands share on their social media channels.
The Gen Z sustainability warrior is quick to point out that greenwashing is not often pulled up due to a lack of governmental regulation. “Brands have just exploited people and the environment because they didn’t need to do things in a certain way, and stricter government regulations can change that,” she said.
“If consumer capitalism continues the way it is, it will be unchecked,” agreed Jain, adding that an efficient system for affordable products is less likely to be an ethical one. However, both Jain and Rattazi agree that it is ultimately up to the customer to also be responsible about their choices.
“We must ask questions and dive deeper into the claims brands make,” states Rattazzi. “It is our curiosity that can change the world.”