Talk is cheap: greenwashing vs greenhushing.

Sustainable communication
In today's fashion scene, almost everyone's talking about GOING GREEN (whatever that means). Brands want you to know they're using sustainable materials and being kind to workers. But not all of them are as sustainable as they claim. Some are tricking us with fake promises (greenwashing) or staying quiet about their impactful practices (greenhushing) out of fear. But most importantly: how they drive positive impact from a strategic point of view matters for stakeholders! In this blog, let's uncover what these tricky tactics are all about, how they're showing up in fashion, and why it matters.

What’s greenwashing?

Greenwashing is something that an organization does on purpose to deceive its stakeholders. It's when companies make exaggerated or false claims and there is no proof of it.

The European Commission reported that 53% of environmental claims they examined were misleading, unfounded, or vague. Greenwashing has become so widespread that in January 2024, the European Union took action. They voted to prohibit the use of misleading terms such as 'environmentally friendly,' 'eco,' 'climate neutral,' 'climate positive,' and 'biodegradable' unless there is evidence to support these claims.

Examples of greenwashing:

In recent years, several prominent fashion and textile brands have faced accusations of greenwashing. For instance, Zara, a leading fast fashion retailer, came under scrutiny despite its efforts to promote sustainability initiatives. Although Zara launched collections made from recycled materials, critics argue that the brand's overall business model continues to promote overconsumption and environmental degradation. Similarly, Levi Strauss & Co., renowned for its denim products, faced criticism for greenwashing allegations. Despite marketing campaigns highlighting their commitment to sustainability, concerns were raised regarding the brand's water usage and supply chain practices, casting doubt on its environmental claims.
Source: Business of Fashion 2023
Some Dutch fashion brands have faced accusations of greenwashing too. For example, Scotch & Soda, a popular Amsterdam-based fashion brand, has been criticized for its sustainability claims. Even though it promotes ‘eco-friendly’ materials and ‘ethical’ practices, some consumers and environmental groups argue that the brand's overall environmental impact remains questionable due to its fast fashion business model and production practices. These examples underscore the challenges facing the fashion industry in balancing sustainability efforts with business practices that may contribute to environmental harm. But most importantly: how they drive positive impact from a strategic point of view matters for stakeholders!
In March 2023, the EU proposed a new law - EU Green Claims Directive - to crack down on misleading environmental claims. The proposal requires companies to substantiate claims they make about environmental aspects or performance of their products and organizations using robust, science based and verifiable methods e.g. Lifecycle Assessments (LCAs).

So what’s the objective of this law?

  • Ensure EU-wide green claims are reliable, verifiable, and comparable
  • Protect consumers from greenwashing
  • Enable informed purchasing decisions
  • Promote a level playing field for environmental product performance

Some Greenwashing facts:

  • 53% of green claims give vague, misleading or unfounded information
  • 40% of claims have no supporting evidence
  • Half of all green labels offer weak or non-existent verification
  • There are 230 sustainability labels and 100 green energy labels in the EU, with vastly different levels of transparency

What’s greenhushing?

Greenhushing is the opposite of greenwashing. It shows how companies are being quieter about their sustainability efforts. They're afraid of saying too much and getting criticized or face reputational damage. Even companies doing a lot for the environment are staying silent. A report found that the most environmentally responsible companies are often the ones saying the least! This demonstrates how companies' communication about sustainability are changing.

So, what’s the problem with greenwashing & greenhusing?

  1. Misleading consumers: Both practices deceive consumers by presenting a false or incomplete picture of a company's environmental efforts.
  2. Undermining trust: Greenwashing takes away trust between brands and consumers. When companies make exaggerated or false claims about their environmental initiatives, it damages their credibility and makes consumers skeptical of future sustainability efforts.
  3. Stifling progress: Greenwashing and greenhushing divert attention and resources away from genuine sustainability initiatives.
  4. Greenwashing and greenhushing can potentially harm competitors who are genuinely committed to sustainability.

How do you share sustainability progress without greenwashing or greenhushing?

Greenwashing and greenhushing both get in the way of real sustainability progress. They make consumers doubt what companies say about their environmental and social responsibility, and they stop good ideas, about helping the environment, from spreading. If we want to make things better for the planet, we need to stop these sneaky practice and start looking internally. How do we want to make impact? What’s our purpose? How do we make sure our goals are embedded in our daily practices?

To share sustainability progress, transparency is key.

  • Develop a purpose and strategy on how you want to make a positive impact on this world both for people, planet and profit
  • Embed the strategy within the organization, make sure there are policies, procedures, trainings and other practices to develop substantial proof
  • Provide accurate and verifiable information about your sustainability initiatives, avoid vague language and focus on tangible results.

By being honest and transparent, you can build trust with your stakeholders and demonstrate your genuine commitment to sustainability.

Engage with stakeholders in meaningful ways. Encourage two-way communication and feedback, allowing stakeholders to ask questions and express concerns. Provide opportunities for collaboration and dialogue, inviting input from employees, customers, suppliers, and other relevant parties. By involving stakeholders in your sustainability journey and listening to their feedback, you can foster a sense of ownership and collective responsibility for driving meaningful change towards a more sustainable future.

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