Greenwashing, Miriam Sallon

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Reading Time: 4 min

Green is so in right now. Ever since April when Extinction Rebellion brought central London to a screeching halt, Greta Thunberg was crowned the younger generation’s pigtailed leader, and the government finally declared a climate change emergency, companies have been falling all over each other to claim they’re the greenest of them all.

And why wouldn’t they! It’s such an excellent opportunity to tap in to the youth market, whilst giving the public a feeling of well-being; that by buying their product, they too are helping to save the planet from this impending catastrophe.

But how many companies are actually helping?

H&M has recently launched a recycling initiative, giving customers 10% off in exchange for bringing old textiles in to be recycled. On the face of it, this is an excellent idea, and a nice community-building exercise. But what about the $4.3 billion worth of unsold clothing and products from 2018?

In a discussion with Vogue, Sustainability Executive Hanna Hallin confirmed they have no intention of lowering their production numbers because “then the 98 per cent [of companies that are] less transparent and less sustainable will just keep making money.” In short, everyone else is doing it too, but at least they’re upfront about it.

And what about the 12 tonnes of stock that, according to a 2017 Danish documentary, H&M literally burns every year? It’s difficult to see how recycling a few old items of clothing will make a dent in this kind of footprint.

This pattern of behaviour is what’s known as ‘greenwashing’. Coined in 1986, the term refers to the corporate practice of making (generally minor) sustainability claims in order to divert attention from questionable environmental credentials.

Another example, and far more ubiquitous is ‘Der Grüne Punkt’, or ‘the green dot’. You know, that little circular symbol with the two tessellating arrows? It’s on everything, from deodorant spray cans to crisp packets. And most people think it means the product is recyclable, but in fact it means that the company donates a certain amount to a consumer-goods recycling company. It’s on all Lynx products, for example, yet none of their products are currently recyclable.

And greenwashing isn’t just a problem for corporations: In 2003, the Household Waste Recycling Act required all councils to provide at least two separate recycling pick-ups, and by 2015, over 40% of the UK municipal waste was supposedly being recycled.

But in July 2018, the NAO (National Audit Office) reported that over two thirds of UK recycling is exported, and the government pays little heed to its future destination thereafter. The UK isn’t built to recycle the amount of waste we’re producing- we just don’t have the infrastructure. So whilst most people have made a habitual chore of ensuring there’s no metal in the paper bin, no plastic in the glass bin, and certainly no food in the plastic bin, in reality most of it will end up in landfills on the other side of the world.

A less likely candidate, women’s lifestyle magazines and online platforms have taken a similarly superficial stance on the environment, lauding sustainable make-up and fashion brands on the one hand, whilst simultaneously talking obsessively about this season’s inescapable Zara midi dress, or the best micro-trends of the week that you absolutely must purchase. As we all know, content is king, and fast fashion has provided an endless stream of content for these magazines, giving them something new to write about every day. But, contrary to the saying, it’s time for them to bite the hand that feeds them.

This is not to say that small changes don’t make a difference, or that contradictions in behaviour should be penalised- we all do what we can. But I’m not talking about switching to a shampoo bar and struggling to give up cotton buds. This is the equivalent of using a shampoo bar, and burning down a rainforest. And I’m barely exaggerating here: second to oil, the fashion industry is the biggest pollutant in the world; 80% of landfills are made up of recyclable items, and China for example (one of the main beneficiaries of the UK’s ‘recycled’ waste) has destroyed over 2 million miles of land due to solid waste.

Unfortunately, corporate environmental regulations are sparse, and as it stands the responsibility is almost entirely on the customer to educate themselves and see if a company’s environmental record stands up to scrutiny. And there are plenty that do. The silver lining is that there is clearly a market for sustainable products, and with the power of the consumer, we can ensure that companies with a penchant for greenwashing incur a people’s penalty, and genuinely environmentally conscientious companies succeed.

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Words: Miriam Sallon