• Culture

Why greenwashing is the ultimate betrayal

Lessons learned from the inside

By Jenny Ringland

Living a sustainable life means something different to everyone. At one end of the spectrum is the activists whose sole focus is living with as little as possible, and fighting hard every day for change. At the other are the quiet achievers, who don’t shout loudly, but who still contribute by living simply and leading by example. I feel like I am somewhere in the middle. I’m not perfect, but I am passionate about affecting change. For me, it’s doing the best I can each day to reduce my carbon footprint and to make healthy choices for myself and my young family.

Through our Green + Simple journey I have discovered some truly great resources that have assisted my conscious consumer quest. There’s the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep catalogue which rates over 70,000 personal care products, the annual Baptist World Aid Ethical Fashion Reports that rates fashion brands on transparency and sustainability, apps like goodonyou with a similar rating system, and eco documentaries like The True Cost –  my favourite to date –  and Damon Gameu’s 2040.

Yet when it comes to the sustainability space that I have become immersed in, making the most sustainable choice is becoming harder and more overcrowded with misinformation. So I cannot tell you how blindingly mad it makes me when I am greenwashed. Which, believe it or not, happens a lot. 

Green washing – AKA green sheen – is the marketing spin used by a brand or company to convince the consumer its product is natural, organic or sustainable, and often all three, when it’s not. And it’s happening to the point that the word sustainable is beginning to lose its power.

Take H&M for example. In 2019 they launched a conscious collection with celebrations the world over, starting in LA. This was then followed up with a 2020 collection featuring polyester made from recycled PET bottles, recycled wool and organic cotton. On the surface this ticks all my conscious consumer boxes, whilst also shining a global light on the critical need for fast fashion brands to lead the way in trialling innovative fibres.

And in fact, it’s also worth noting H&M’s clothing recycling bins outside each store are one of the most sustainable ways to discard old clothing which is ripped or stained and unsuitable for charity donation. 

However, there is still the glaring omission that in the past H&M has destroyed a horrific $4.3 billion worth of never-before-worn clothing. And along with other big chains like Zara, struggle with ensuring their garment workers are paid a living wage

As a consumer, we are lured in with the promise of a better for planet or better for us choice, but it doesn’t change the fact that these brands are built on fast consumerism.

As a consumer, being greenwashed happens to me more often than I’d like to admit, and not just when I’m shopping for clothes. All it takes is a rushed trip to the supermarket, a clever label in muted green and white tones with words like ‘natural botanicals, organic, green, clean or sustainable’ and before I know it I am unpacking the groceries realising I have been had. And it makes me think, if I am being green washed, then so must everybody else? And how on earth are these companies allowed to get away with it? 

According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission there are voluntary standards growers and manufacturers should meet in order to label their products organic or biodynamic. However, because it is a voluntary standard, brands don’t have to actually meet the requirements in order to sell their products using labels like “organic” in Australia.

A good rule of thumb (which may or may not help as you race down the green beauty aisle)  is; if the price of an organic or sustainable product seems too good to be true, it probably is!

How to avoid being greenwashed

  • Read the label: the first ingredient on the list typically  makes up the majority of the product. Look for percentages, for example ‘made from 97 per cent organic ingredients’ means it’s the real deal
  • Do your research: have an idea of the products you want to buy before you hit the shops, that way you won’t be lured in by flashy eco promises
  • Ask questions: don’t be afraid to email your favourite brands if you have any questions, it might be the case that they have sustainable practices that you don’t know about.

Related: Why I made the switch to natural beauty 

Related: How eco friendly is your favourite fashion brand?

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