In the sustainability landscape, chances are you’ve already heard of the word greenwashing. While the term became common language only recently, it has been widely used by environmental activists and advocates to talk about corporates that are trying to jump on the sustainability bandwagon without actually acting in consequence.

According to an Accenture study, 72% of consumers are buying more sustainable products than they were five years ago and more than half are even willing to pay more for them. So it’s no surprise that brands from small independents to the high street are trying to attract customers by calling their products green, eco-conscious or environmentally friendly.

The term bluewashing, however, might be new to some and focusses more on the labour conditions and human rights within the garment industry rather than environmental issues. It’s also often associated with the blue logo of the United Nations (UN) and more specifically the UN Global Compact.

So what do greenwashing and bluewashing actually entail and why are they a huge problem especially in the fashion industry?

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing happens when a company conveys false claims or provides misleading information about its products or actions to suggest they are eco-friendly and socially responsible. Brands are giving this promise to customers but aren’t following what they say behind the scenes, leading customers to believe they are doing something good by buying into the brand when they are just taking part in the problem.

Greenwashing is no more than a marketing tactic to sell more products at a higher price and it makes it difficult for people to make smart choices.

What is bluewashing?

As the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative, the UN Global Compact has established ten principles focused on promoting socially responsible practices such as the abolishment of child labour, corruption and slavery. More than 12’000 companies are involved and have pledged to abide to high ethical standards respecting human and environmental rights.

While this sounds great on paper, the UNGC has been criticised by academic scholars and human rights activists for lacking mechanisms to ensure and control that corporates are following these principles. So bluewashing kicks in when companies with bad track records use their membership to give off the image that they have ethical standards without changing their practices.

How can you spot them?

The best way to work out if a brand is really environmentally and socially responsible is by looking for hidden information in a so-called eco-friendly product. While a company could address the use of recycled or organic materials in a product, it might not disclose how or where the product has been made, how much emission it costs to make, or how the materials have been sourced. Invest in brands that take a holistic approach by finding new business models which integrate sustainability at the core instead of focusing on only one product or collection.

Find out whether a brand is backing up its claims with proofs and data – numbers are always more trustworthy than buzzwords. Vague and poorly defined terms are tricking customers into believing the company is doing more than it actually is. And touting a product natural or vegan doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more eco-friendly, all depends on how they’re sourced or what they’re made of. So looking at labels and being critical about the information given by a brand is a good way to go around it – transparency at all levels of the supply chain is key.

How to avoid and stop them from happening?

As citizens, we have the right to know more about what we’re buying. The best way for brands to take responsibility is to ask them questions and expect more precise information.

It can sometimes be confusing to make the difference between right and wrong, so go to platforms that do the work for you. For example, Good On You is the world’s leading rating system on ethical and sustainable fashion to assist people in making positive shopping choices through an accessible app. Meanwhile, Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index highlights information released by top brands about their supply chains, and e-commerce platform Staiy gathers ethical brands that have been assessed against a demanding sustainability evaluation.

Check for industry-standard certifications that have strict policies put in place to avoid any misbehaviours. These include but are not limited to: B Corp which covers social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability; FairWear which supports the workers’ rights in the garment industry; and GOTS which ensure the cotton used meets approved standards across the supply chain.

The transparent brands setting an example

Outland Denim offers ethical employment opportunities for women rescued from human trafficking in Cambodia and each pair of premium denim has a message from one of the seamstresses printed on the pocket lining. The brand uses eco-friendly materials that limit the amount of chemicals, water and waste while its supply chain is currently 94% traceable.

Outerknown is another fantastic example of a brand created to protect both people and the planet. They have a Fair Labor programme which is the foundation of their sustainability framework, as people are at the heart of all matters. The brand has a sustainability strategy which takes them to 2030 with tangible objectives and goals. Outerknown’s 5 year plan focuses on leading innovation, embracing circular models and championing fair labour. The brand lays out their plan on their website.

Author: Morgane Nyfeler


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