The Green Sheen

Too many companies push out a sustainable image, without taking true responsibility


Charlotte Lebbing

Senior Sydney Torbit takes a gulp from her reusable water bottle during lunch. Reusable bottles help to prevent plastic pollution.

In 2010, fast-fashion clothing company H&M launched its “Conscious Collection.” The line was advertised to be environmentally friendly, made with organic cotton and recycled polyester. And in 2013 the company started its “Garment Collecting” initiative, which promised to accept old, unwanted clothing and turn them into something new. 

The only problem? Those optimistic environmental claims turned out to be unreliable. The Norwegian Consumer Authority called the company out for not providing sufficient information about the sustainability of its “Conscious Collection.” And sustainable fashion expert Elizabeth Cline revealed that the “Garment Collecting” initiative was only able to recycle roughly 1% of the clothing received.

In both instances, H&M was accused of ¨greenwashing,¨ a term that refers to the actions of a company that intentionally or accidentally claims to be more environmentally friendly than it actually is. Greenwashing is associated with a horde of problems. It causes a loss of trust from consumers and sometimes company stakeholders. And more importantly, the industrial damage to the environment that greenwashing companies try to hide is still happening.

Many consumers want to avoid supporting these practices. The Federal Trade Commission maintains a set of rules and guidelines called the Green Guides that direct how things can be labeled sustainable, but greenwashing still happens everywhere. In fact, 40% of sustainability claims online could be misleading to consumers, according to members of the International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network.

If you want to avoid supporting companies that engage in greenwashing, there are some ways to go about this–question vague claims like ¨green friendly¨ and ¨better for the planet¨ on packaging. Consume less in general. Be aware of the possibility of inflated claims like the ones H&M made about their “Garment Collecting” initiative. And use common sense over adherence to trends–that bamboo toothbrush packaged in excessive plastic is NOT environmentally friendly. 

These more conscious consumer practices along with publicly vilifying greenwashing culprits are often the first impulse of the sustainably-minded. I wouldn’t call that the wrong thing to do–greenwashing is a harmful practice and backlash from the public can help push corporations into making more ethical decisions. 

But sometimes the way discussions around greenwashing are framed distracts from deeper issues. Case in point, it may suck that H&M’s Conscious Collection and Garment Collecting initiative weren’t what they were cracked up to be, but how much would that really matter in the end? Sure, it probably could have mitigated a little bit of the environmental damage it would have otherwise been doing, but at the end of the day H&M is a fast-fashion company. 

Fast fashion companies are known for making cheap, disposable clothing only meant to be worn a few times before they go to landfills en masse. This monstrous process sucks up resources and often leads factory workers mistreated and underpaid to cut costs. It is an inherently unethical, destructive business model and no accessory line of sustainable clothing or recycling program would have changed that.

This is the problem with many modern companies–they are simply, intrinsically not built to be anything other than environmentally destructive but still find themselves needing to appease a consumer culture that values corporate social responsibility now more than ever. 

They make environmentally-inspired stunts that are ultimately inconsequential when drawn next to the nature of their business. Coca-Cola funds plastic cleanups while remaining the world´s top plastic polluter. ExxonMobile publicly supports the Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change and also carbon pricing, which would incentivize polluters to reduce emissions by putting a price on carbon. Exxonmobil has allegedly lobbied against climate science for decades. 

 Trying to make effective change for the environment is incredibly complicated in every way but one–any nullification of an all-out crisis would be a consequence of decisive political action– action we are currently not taking. 

Part of that action should be working towards a world that does not incentivize these kinds of companies to be environmentally destructive through real solutions like carbon pricing and restrictions on plastic. This will help qualm greenwashing, and hopefully preserve our world.