Earlier this year, the founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, got us all talking when he announced he was giving away the company to fight climate devastation.

As well as being a huge step for sustainability in a sector dominated by fast fashion and throwaway culture, it’s a perfect example of a corporation taking genuine environmental responsibility in a sea of ‘greenwashing’.

As an agency that works largely in the outdoor and sports industry, we love to see examples of genuine action supporting a better future for us all, and our planet – rather than paying “lip-service” to sustainable goals – or as it has more commonly become known as “greenwashing”. 

We are keen to work with ethical companies that add value to our lives. In our journey we have seen examples of those who strive to create genuine change, and others who are less effective. 

Here, we hope to help you identify the signs of greenwashing.    

A surge in demand for sustainability  

It’s no secret that generally, we’re trying to move towards more sustainable practices. A 2022 survey by Deliotte found that even compared with 2021, there’s been a sharp increase in consumers only buying what they need, reducing meat consumption, and reducing their carbon footprint when travelling.  

Of course, brands are always looking to align with their customers’ values, in a bid to increase sales. That means now, brands are looking to make their operations more sustainable – or at least convince their target market that they are. This could mean using more sustainable materials, reducing overproduction and therefore waste, or even using waste materials to create their products.  

What is greenwashing?  

While there are loads of brands on the market which are successfully making their operations more sustainable, there are also some that are jumping on the bandwagon to increase sales, without taking any meaningful action.  

This is greenwashing.  

While the brand convinces their customers that buying their products is an environmentally conscious choice, they become more attractive and in turn, increase sales. Consumers feel that they’ve made a sustainable choice, with a brand that aligns with their values.  

Fast-fashion brands have been criticised for appointing sustainability ambassadors that serve to distract from the ethical implications of fast fashion. The Advertising Standards Agency has also intervened with misleading adverts, and UK watchdogs have stepped in to ban adverts with false claims.  

Signs to look out for  

When it comes to greenwashing, there are some giveaway signs to look out for.  

Vague language about sustainability or conscious choices, without any specifics is a classic greenwashing technique. Some brands even do as little as use natural colours like cream or green in their labelling to signify more natural materials, without actually saying anything about the materials they used.  

If a brand is claiming to be more sustainable, see if they back this up with facts.  

Statements or partnerships that seem to contrast a brand’s ideals often signal that they are greenwashing.  

For example, fast fashion brands which profit from quick trend cycles and fast production are unlikely to want their customers to make sustainable choices like re-wearing outfits or purchasing second hand.  

Taking a moment to stop and think about the relevance of a company’s claims can also quickly uncover a greenwashing attempt.  

For example, a paper company might claim to use ‘all natural materials’, but paper is usually natural anyway – and those materials could still be harvested using harmful methods.  

Numbers can also be used to inflate the relevance of a claim; a clothing company that now uses ‘50% more recycled fibres’ may have only increased the number of recycled fibres from 2% to 3%.   

What can you do? 

While it can be hard to truly know whether a company is serious about sustainability, or greenwashing for financial gain, it can be useful to look at the bigger picture and investigate further claims of sustainability.  

Positive signs to look out for can include specific language and facts to show what a brand is doing to be ‘more sustainable’.  

See if sustainability is a theme that runs throughout the company and their products, rather than using one token message of sustainability.  

And finally, sustainability is a long-term action, as opposed to short lived campaigns or stunts. Look at the history of a brand and what they stand for. Positive and meaningful sustainability, both environmental and social, should be part of a culture running through a company.  

To find out more, email us at [email protected] to arrange a chat.