Greenwashing: Brands cause harm when they (un)knowingly appropriate sustainability language

Fold and Fray Blog Post Graphic that reads: GREENWASHING: Brands cause harm when they (un)knowingly appropriate sustainability language.

Sustainability is complex. There’s no one way to do it. I think that Brands cause harm when they do not have environmental or social justice ethics built into their businesses, but use sustainability language as strategic marketing when it’s convenient or profitable for them. An eco-initiative or slogan can be a genuine attempt at caring about the environment. However, if not backed by the knowledge or foundation to support it, it can also be hollow and therefore misleading. This sort of attempted engagement in sustainability can lead to the dissemination of misinformation, and a false sense of participating in environmental activism.

Greenwashing can be an intentional action by a Brand to appear more “green” than it is, such as using pictures of green leaves, or labelling something as “eco-friendly.” Any time a major Fast Fashion brand produces a single eco-clothing line (or product) that they promote as “sustainable” or “conscious” without addressing their own systemic overproduction, it’s Greenwashing. This tactic is intended to disguise the fact that Fast Fashion is deeply unethical and unsustainable, and it gives customers a false sense of engaging in sustainability. But Greenwashing is multidimensional. It can be subversive and unintentional, which makes it more difficult to identify. It’s so insidious that you might not know it’s happening, and a business might not even know they’re doing it. 

I think that this kind of unintentional Greenwashing is extremely problematic and harmful. A common example is when a Brand uses recycled polyester in newly manufactured clothing and advertises it as “sustainable” but never educates their customer on plastic microfibers (plastic microfibers are shed from plastic-based textiles, regardless of whether or not it’s a recycled material). Another example is when a Brand uses “compostable” mailers for shipping, but does not understand waste collection, and fails to provide customers with accurate information on how these items break down, in what time frame, and whether this kind of packaging waste is even accepted for municipality composting. A final example is when a Brand donates a fraction of product sales to environmental organizations, when in fact, not manufacturing the product at all would have a more positive environmental impact. Superficial ethical actions (which can come from a place of good intentions) make it harder for consumers to distinguish what’s sustainable from what isn’t.

When Brands engage in these kinds of shallow actions, it also has negative impacts on people and businesses who are actually doing true sustainability work everyday: people who tirelessly work to unpack the complexity and urgency of these issues, without exploiting sustainability language as a trend for commodification.

When Brands use sustainability language to suggest that we can shop our way out of a climate crisis, it’s Greenwashing. Sustainability is not something you can buy your way into. When an individual (or business) operates from a place of power, privilege or influence, and exploits people's trust and hope in order to appear more ethical than it is, it’s harmful. Buying stuff is not sustainability, it’s shopping.


2 comments


  • Victoria Young-Barker

    Congrats! what an eye-opening topic, I really enjoyed your blog on this topic and learnt about how some Brands appear to be more “green”, say they are a sustainable company or business as part of their business model, ethics, social action or corporate responsibilities – yet their actions reflect the contrary.


  • Catherine Allardyce

    I learned a lot from this blog post and thought it was well written. Thank you for explaining what green washing is and how prevalent it is for brands to do this. I also loved the conclusion that “buying stuff is not sustainability, it’s shopping”. Looking forward to the next post!


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