The Sustainability Lie

By Alice Healy, First Year English Literature and History

Greenwashing, a term originating in the 1980s, is a marketing technique in which corporations falsely claim to be implementing ethical or environmentally friendly practices. In an age of rising consciousness around environmental issues, corporations are becoming increasingly aware of the positive reception to the eco-conscious movement. Due to this, it is natural to see many companies utilise the move to environmental awareness for profit. However, it appears as if many of these companies, instead of actually investing in environmentally friendly practices, instead focus their efforts on merely appearing more ethical, environmentally friendly and non-toxic. Their deceptive marketing makes it extremely difficult for consumers to be able to choose truly ethical companies to support. So, as consumers, we must be conscious of these false or misleading ‘green’ claims.

H&M, one of the world’s largest fashion brands, is particularly problematic in this regard. Its conscious collection claims to emphasise the importance of sustainable fashion, whilst the company itself promotes a fast fashion ideology. Fast fashion, being one of the leading causes of environmental destruction and carbon emissions, is incompatible with the move towards sustainability. The recycling scheme, named ‘Close the Loop,’ which the company introduced in 2013, appears at first to be an attempt at sustainability and eco-conscious consumerism. It is, admittedly, an admirable sounding initiative, but given the mixed materials in most fast fashion brands’ clothing, only 1% of these items will ever actually be recycled. So, although it may feel good to drop off a bag full of clothing into a ‘recycling bin’, in reality, it is merely another step in an item’s journey to landfill. While these attempts at eco-conscious practices seem to be a step in the right direction, H&M’s ultimate goal is profit. This profit, however, comes at a huge environmental cost; inadequate ‘sustainability’ schemes and ‘recycling’ initiatives do not even begin to reduce fast fashion’s immensely damaging impact.

The problem is not limited to fast fashion brands

The problem is, however, not limited to fast fashion brands. Beauty brands, such as The Body Shop, Lush, Kiehl’s and many more, give the impression that their ingredient lists are natural and non-toxic, and their practices are as sustainable as possible. Many of the beauty brands’ products, which claim to be completely natural and gentle, are laden with harsh preservatives (such as phenoxyethanol), synthetic fragrances and SLSs (sulphates). Though some of these companies, such as Lush, do often boast better ethics than most, it is important to be conscious that these companies are not perfect.  

Surprisingly, even the water industry is involved in these misleading marketing campaigns. Fiji water, for example, has developed an aesthetically pleasing marketing campaign emphasising the company’s connection to nature. The water is ‘bottled at the source, untouched by man’, thus curating an image of untouched native Fijian flora and fauna. Yet, Fiji Water is ultimately bottled in plastic, which is a huge source of environmental pollution, and shipped to areas around the world by way of intensely detrimental transportation methods.  In addition, around 47% of Fijians do not even have access to safe, clean drinking water, whilst this company bottles and sells water at exorbitant prices (World Health Organisation). The clear contrast between what the company presents in marketing and the reality of its actions provide us with a clear view of greenwashing.

The manipulation of the conscious consumer’s mind is taking centre stage

This insidious form of advertising is masking a genuine and necessary move towards positive change. Advertising can be a way in which companies promote products pushing for sustainability, but currently the manipulation of the conscious consumer’s mind is taking centre stage. Being aware of deceptive company advertising is the first step in tackling this issue. Research, mindful consumerism and more general increased awareness of these issues will make it easier for everyone to navigate towards the truly sustainable options existing beyond the green minefield.

Alice Healy is a first year student studying English Literature and History. When she is not reading for an essay in John’s library, you will find Alice promoting ethical and environmentally friendly living. In her spare time Alice enjoys participating in college squash and football, both of which give her a small break from reading and writing!

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