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  • Writer's pictureSFI Blog Team

How Fashion Brands Utilize Social Media to Greenwash Consumers

By Lindsey Foust.

What the world needs is transformative, mountain-moving, revolutionary change: not a product that falsely claims to be capable of these things.

Have you ever been scrolling through social media when a post pops up promoting an environmentally friendly product? At first glance, this may seem like the perfect solution to becoming a more environmentally conscious consumer. The reality is that even more sustainable brands focus on the triple bottom line: people, planet, and most importantly profit. In Jenny Price’s book, “Stop Saving the Planet!” she personally defines greenwashing as, “the deployment of small acts of Green Virtue -- which allows a company to continue to change environments mostly badly and inequitably to maximize growth and profits.” When an individual takes a step back to question the true motives of large corporations, their main concern is profitability, not saving the world. Fashion brands utilize social media platforms to greenwash their consumers in order to make large profits with little environmental change. However, as much as one is quick to blame corporations for greenwashing initiatives, it is also up to the consumer to do their research on these claims, speak up on social media platforms, and be a driving force for change in the fashion industry.

Social media marketing heavily influences our purchasing decisions in today's day and age. Brands are now able to easily hire elite teams of social media gurus to get their curated messages across to primarily Gen-Z and Millennial consumers. The goal here is to sell an idea of “better” in order to make a quick profit. Price defines this feeling of “better” as Green Virtue. This greener-than-thou mindset is a collective virtue that is rooted in all people including CEOs, stay-at-home moms, and yes, even environmentalists. Green Virtue is almost as annoying as greenwashing, but unfortunately just as irresistible. “It’s like holding up a “we’re so virtuous!” sign to proclaim that they’re “saving the planet.” (Price, 50). Greenwashing feeds into these ego-centric emotions, which simply treat symptoms of global environmental issues instead of perpetuating the core of these concerns. How does Green Virtue translate across mobile platforms and transcend traditional greenwashing campaigns?

Just as an individual is able to be a catfish on the internet, brands have used similar tactics by greenwashing their consumers if one doesn’t look close enough. How trustworthy are global brands, and are they truly as environmentally friendly as they’re marketed up to be? The consumer-to-producer relationship is one that will always be rooted in trust. When a product is marketed as “sustainable” or “good for the environment,” the buyer feels more comfortable and less guilty when making that purchasing decision. In a time before Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms came to the scene, it was much easier for brands to hide their individual corporate irresponsibility. Even pre-internet, finding information about where and how clothing was produced was nearly impossible. What people truly love about fashion is the mystery and seduction of it all. However, on April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,000 workers and injuring an additional 2,000. (Drennan 21). Rana Plaza was the first time mass media had addressed and acknowledged the dark side of the fashion industry on a global scale. Once consumers knew that women and children had been making their clothing in unsafe working conditions, there was an almost immediate call to action. The year 2013 opened the eyes to a new generation of American consumers for the first time, and they’ve been paying closer attention ever since.

Greenwashing is no new phenomenon. According to writer and editor Richard Dahl, the term has been widely used widely since the 1980s to describe exaggerated claims of a product's positive environmental benefits and externalities in order to profit. However, social media allows consumers to create a public demand for increased transparency from brands. A prime example of a single consumer calling out a fashion brand for their false claims was Aja Barber. Aja Barber is a writer, consultant, and stylist whose work intersections fashion and sustainability. In an Instagram post from April 22, 2020 she states:

A post came across my timeline from the brand in question and it made my jaw drop... The brand (H&M) refers to themselves as “the most transparent brand in the world”... I’d be willing to bet there’s at least 500 small brands with better transparency than a multi national company run by billionaires...⁣ the brand then hashtags the post #sustainability… Two days ago we learned how the transparency report has ZERO ZILCH NADA NOTHING TO DO WITH #SUSTAINABILITY... The brand has 4958 stores worldwide. On average if those stores sell 5000 pieces daily they’re selling 25,000,000 million pieces of clothing DAILY. That number is a low estimate. There is nothing sustainable about the business model. (@ajabarber)

Aja Barber is referencing an H&M Instagram post that was falsely projecting the image of a sustainable brand. Her post calling H&M out for greenwashing reached approximately 200,000 + social media users based on her current following of 233,000 individual accounts. An additional two hundred comments were uploaded on her post expressing her follower's equal disappointment, shock, and even anger. Aja Barber was a single consumer who was able to draw a large crowd to a public display of greenwashing. Her post may seem like one small action, but it was the right amount of push to keep the ball rolling on holding fashion brands accountable on social media, and for buyers to do their research before consciously consuming.

Is it possible for a global fashion corporation to become sustainable at all? In October of 2020, H&M created the garment-to-garment recycling system called Looop. Although it is only available in Sweden, customers can watch their garments be broken down into fiber, spun into new yarn, and then be reconstructed within just five hours. Pascal Brun, from H&M’s head of sustainability says, “It’s also about making sure they (the customers) experience the process of recycling, so it triggers behavioral change.” From the outside looking in, this sounds revolutionary. However, Looop still requires that virgin materials are necessary for this process and clothing with fabric blends can’t be repurposed into new materials either. A deeper dive shows that this may just be another social media stunt in order to check off a sustainability box. Comments on H&M’s Instagram post highlighting this initiative read things like “stop acting like you’re being ‘circular’ if you produce 56 collections a year. You’re ruining the earth and you’re ruining your workers life!” (@indiscomics), “This is #greenwashing and you know it” (@anavarelahola), and “Great step towards circularity, but if you want to be sustainable, you have to pay your garment workers (and also not rely on a system where you need to sell high volumes of garments to make profits)” (@svlomax). These consumers are refusing to be silent, just as Aja Barber publicly was as well. These comments may influence how Looop continues to develop and expand into the future for the better. By calling H&M out publicly, consumers will expect real change by holding brands to their word. Gen-Z is unafraid to call larger corporations out, especially when they’ve grown up reading between the lines and experienced the empty promises ingrained in a capitalistic society.

It is impossible for a global fashion brand to be considered sustainable if it continues to operate at such high production values with maximum revenue at its core. Additionally, endorsing a system that exploits garment workers and natural resources will simply never be a sustainable business model, even if social media continues to market it that way. So why does it seem like large corporations are always the primary stakeholders investing in things like clean tech, recycling campaigns, beach cleanups, or NGO partnerships? When a company is operating at such high capacities, it can invest in relatively any green action of its choice. For example the previously mentioned fast fashion company, H&M. Forbes estimates that H&M’s market value is well over 20 billion dollars. That’s a lot of money to fund “saving the planet,” or at least project the image of that on social media while simultaneously executing the most minimal corporate effort.

Greenwashing can also be defined as, “the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company's products are more environmentally sound.” (Kenton) Greenwashing intentionally deceives consumers, and this should not be mistaken. Marketing teams are composed of college-educated individuals who know how to sell a product in the most efficient way possible. Greenwashing taps into consumer emotions by exploiting the buyer's naivete to believe the best in a product. The truth is, however, that no product will ever be able to solve environmental issues like climate change or pollution. Even the most eco-friendly products have an environmental footprint. These products are capitalistic bandaids to global problems that can only be solved through real big picture changes in the system. What the world needs is transformative, mountain-moving, revolutionary change: not a product that falsely claims to be capable of these things.

With all of this being said, the biggest lesson in terms of greenwashing is that even the best of corporate intentions have substantial negative effects that are felt globally if they are not executed correctly. As a call to action, consumers must be able to recognize when brands are trying to outplay them in order to make a profit. In order to know how to avoid greenwashing, the buyer must first know what this looks like in order to properly identify it when out in the real world. From the exterior, greenwashing can look like an average product wrapped up in crisp green-colored packaging, brands may use eco-buzz words like “clean,” “green,” or “bio,” to sway consumers, or even by producing a marketing campaign that emphasizes fresh botanicals, clean water, and natural materials in its advertisements. Unfortunately, these traditional greenwashing tactics work. Buyers must know that brands will succeed in deceiving them with entrancing environmental visuals and broad statements with no truth to them. For example, H&M’s Conscious Collection is notoriously advertised with models running through a field, posing in a tropical jungle, or another predominantly “green” environment. The goal of collective education about greenwashing is that once the buyer knows how to recognize these signs, they can research the environmental claims that brands are making, and hold them accountable for real, long-term, and effective change.

To provide a further context of additional ways brands utilize greenwashing, here are the seven sins of greenwashing as referenced by Richard Dahl’s article, “Green Washing. Do You Know What You’re Buying?”

  1. Sin of the hidden trade-off: committed by suggesting a product is “green” based on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues (e.g., paper produced from a sustainably harvested forest may still yield significant energy and pollution costs).

  2. Sin of no proof: committed by an environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification (e.g., paper products that claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing any evidence).

  3. Sin of vagueness: committed by every claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer (e.g., “all-natural”).

  4. Sin of irrelevance: committed by making an environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products (e.g., “CFC-free” is meaningless given that chlorofluorocarbons are already banned by law).

  5. Sin of lesser of two evils: committed by claims that may be true within the product category, but that risk distracting the consumer from the greater health or environmental impacts of the category as a whole (e.g., organic cigarettes).

  6. Sin of fibbing: committed by making environmental claims that are simply false (e.g., products falsely claiming to be Energy Star certified).

  7. Sin of false labels: committed by exploiting consumers’ demand for third-party certification with fake labels or claims of third-party endorsement (e.g., certification-like images with green jargon such as “eco-preferred”).

The fashion industry will never stop ceasing to exist. What can cease to exist however is fashion’s desire to appear as something it’s not: sustainable. Brands want to appear sustainable because it feels good to do the right thing, or at least convince a lot of other people that it’s possible through Green Virtue.

Just as plastic water bottles continue to advocate for being the greenest, it doesn't matter, and it never did. The conversation of green vs. not green is a distraction from the fact that we should limit our use of plastic water bottles to begin with. This is a simplified analogy for the current state of the fashion industry. Every brand, designer, and CEO is concerned with the most innovative textiles, zero waste pattern-making techniques, natural dyeing, and every other distraction of a solution. These all avoid the root of the problem: the world doesn't need any more clothes, especially ones that aren’t made to last. Consumers have the ability to drive this change from the ground up starting with collective education and outreach. Sustainable fashion is an incredibly frustrating oxymoron. It’s a narrative that distracts the public from a much larger global issue:

The system must be redesigned, not the clothes.

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