Seven Tips To Avoid Being Duped by Greenwashing Brands

Sustainability has become an advertising buzzword in recent years, but it can be difficult for consumers to determine how environmentally friendly a brand really is.

If you suspect a company is greenwashing and its marketing makes unsubstantiated claims about sustainable practices and products, what do you do?

Here, retail and environmental experts offer their tips to prevent ethical shoppers from being duped, from checking brands' credentials online to thinking about downcycled products.

eco-friendly sustainable shopping bag
Reusable shopping bag. To find out if a brand is really environment-friendly, you might have to dig a little deeper. iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

What Are the Tell-Tale Signs of an Unsustainable Company?

Rebecca Clube, a PhD researcher at the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London, said brands that rely on high volume and low prices could be problematic.

"Watch out for brands that emphasize sustainability in their marketing, when in reality their 'sustainable' collections represent a small proportion of total sales," she said.

Some companies, Clube warned, offer "incremental end-of-life solutions but do not attempt to change the underlying high-consumption mindset."

For instance, clothing retailers may have a return scheme but encourage greater consumption of their clothing, which is made from mixed petrochemical-based fiber or based on "fast fashion" trends that give it an extremely short lifespan.

Hannah-Polly Williams, senior director, ESG and sustainability at FTI Consulting, said it can be difficult to determine a company's sustainability, but "if it seems too good to be true, it probably is."

She explained: "Because, for now, we don't yet have consistent expectations of the reporting companies do in these areas, it's hard to really know what is going on.

"The key point the consumer needs to realize is that these are multifaceted issues —you can be very good on environmental factors and bad on social factors.

"You can be leading on diversity and inclusion but lagging on environmental factors. You can even be outstanding on reducing your net emissions but not have considered biodiversity loss within your operations.

"A lot of this is interdependent. Being able to point out clear areas where you are doing well doesn't mean you are doing well as a company across these other factors—which are also very important."

What Should You Look for While Shopping?

Clube's first advice is to select items designed to last, which you plan to keep long term, and to buy in store rather than online—because many brands do not resell their returned items.

"Check the labels. Certifications do not automatically mean sustainable, however they can provide an indicator that the retailer has at least made some attempts to improve the environmental or social impacts of their garments," she said.

"Recycled content does not equate to total sustainability. Just because something has recycled content it does not mean it can be recycled once you have worn it.

"This can often be confusing for the consumer. An item labeled 'Made from 100 percent recycled content' often comes from plastic bottles rather than old clothes!

"Mixed-blend fiber garments are generally the hardest to process at end of life. For example, currently, few have commercially scaled recycling solutions, [meaning] these items will often end up downcycled."

She added: "Items that are likely to be damaged because of poor quality should be avoided, as they are unlikely to be able to be mended and result in low utilization."

Williams advised checking a company's credentials online to try to determine its sustainability and asking "whether the company has a robust sustainability report."

She added: "Whilst certainly not a hard and fast rule, it is a good indication that the company takes these issues seriously. That said, keep in mind that the absence of a sustainability report doesn't mean that the company is necessarily unsustainable, especially for smaller brands where there might be other factors at play, such as capacity and budget. "

Look out for standards and accreditations, she said. "Do they have a sustainability report which talks about adherence to standards like the Global Reporting Initiative or Sustainability Accounting Standards Board? If they have a net zero commitment, is that commitment accredited by the Science Based Targets initiative?

"For food and cosmetics, there are also an increasing range of real-time rating companies, for example, Yuka, which rates the sustainability of all food and cosmetic products from a health and environment perspective, and suggests alternatives."

How To Avoid Greenwashing: Seven Key Points

  • Check how much of total sales are represented by sustainable collections
  • Avoid brands with incremental end-of-life solutions but a high-consumption mindset
  • Be wary of high-street capsule collections
  • Select items designed to last, which you plan to keep long term
  • Check what recycled materials are made of
  • Check a company's credentials online
  • Change your expectation around cost

How To Spot Questionable Fashion Campaigns

Celebrity stylist Miranda Holder, who founded The Feel Good Fashion Coach, said the first step of shopping consciously was looking behind marketing catchphrases such as "sustainable" and "planet-friendly."

"Consider what the company is choosing to miss out from their marketing spiel," she said. "There are many stages within the fashion industry that can cause damage to the environment, just because one is doing better doesn't mean they are excelling in all areas."

Philippa Grogan, a sustainable policy, fashion and textiles consultant at agency Eco-Age, said: "For me, a red flag if a company doesn't publicly report on sustainability efforts and learnings through their online communications. If they are making bold product claims, they should be able to back them up through public, science-based rhetoric.

Grogan added: "I would also say be wary of capsule collections from high street fashion brands. Capsule collections can be used by fast fashion to masquerade as a purpose-driven business, when the majority of other product lines have little or no sustainability focus."

Is It Possible To Shop Sustainably on a Budget?

Consumers can shop sustainably on a budget, according to Holder, but she believes we need to "alter our expectations around cost."

"There is no way a T-shirt costing £5 can ever be sustainable, but for £15 it could be," she said. "We need more pressure to move away from the lure of fast fashion and buying better-quality items that will last."

Clube also said it was possible to stick to a budget, suggesting second-hand purchasing as a way to consume without creating a primary demand for products.

"There are now a range of options to shop second hand, from online exchange platforms, attending clothing swaps—often organized at the community level—and charity shops.

"Swapping parties with friends are a great way to get new clothes without spending money. For special occasion wear, consider renting an item. All these opportunities offer generally cheaper and more sustainable options than buying new."

What Are Regulators Doing About Greenwashing?

Action is being taken to ensure companies keep their promises on ethical practices, according to Williams. "This is a concern that regulators take seriously, with a number of high-profile investigations currently underway into claims of greenwashing."

The European Union is introducing a Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, "which will make it increasingly hard for companies to make claims about the sustainability and positive impacts of their products and investments without being able to validate this," she said.

American companies that do business in Europe will have to comply as well and the measures are expected to apply from the 2023 financial year.

In the U.S., the Securities and Exchange Commission has recently released drafts of a proposal to enhance and standardize companies' climate-related disclosures.

American consumers and businesses can also consult the Federal Trade Commission's guidance for environmental marketing claims. If a shopper believes a company has made a deceptive claim, they can file a complaint with the FTC.