Effective Communication Key To Avoid Greenwashing

Philippa Grogan, a consultant with Eco-Age, discusses greenwashing and best practices for communicating sustainability claims.

TW Special Report

London-based Eco-Age helps brands develop sustainable business strategies beginning with responsible practices that lower a company’s impact on people and the planet. Eco-Age’s team — comprised of technical, strategy, communications and digital media content specialists and consultants — also helps its clients effectively communicate their journey in a transparent and tangible manner. The end-to-end agency reports it has collaborated with non-governmental organizations, governments and changemakers across industries over the past 10 years working to effect change in corporate responsibility.

Current and past clients related to the textile industry include The Woolmark Company; fiber producer Aquafil; denim manufacturer Candiani; British retailer Marks & Spencer; and fashion brands Diesel, UGG and Stella McCartney, to name just a few companies. Eco-Age also has established the Green Carpet Challenge® and the Green Carpet Fashion Awards to bring attention to sustainable fashion brands while pairing “glamour with ethics.”

In the age of sustainable manufacturing, the term greenwashing is heard more often than ever before. A take on the term “whitewash,” greenwashing is defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the act or practice of making a product, policy, activity, etc. appear to be more environmentally friendly or less environmentally damaging than it really is.”

Textile World recently had the chance to speak with Philippa Grogan, a sustainability consultant in Policy, Fashion and Textiles at Eco-Age, about greenwashing and sustainability in the fashion industry. She has two Masters degrees in fashion sustainability and enjoys working with her clients to help “mitigate their environmental impact through innovative, alternative and regenerative material selection.”

Textile World: Current news suggests some brands have been greenwashing. What does the fashion industry need to do to mitigate continued greenwashing?

Grogan: The fashion industry should share focus between outward-facing sustainability narratives and inward-facing better business strategies. So many brands are determined to appear sustainable in the public eye that meaningful sustainability strategies are falling by the wayside. Sustainability communications should evolve against a backdrop of continual and holistic sustainability progress. The industry needs to acknowledge imperfection and be ready to communicate about learnings as well as wins. Nobody is perfect, and we are all navigating this space together. Companies should be more forthcoming with the things they are working on, rather than the things they have already achieved.

TW: From an Eco-Age perspective, what do you view as the dangers of brands utilizing incorrect data to verify sustainability claims?

Grogan: Brands need to think twice about using generalized lifecycle assessment (LCA) data to communicate sustainability to consumers. Generalized data can be aggregated and reworked from industry, global, or national databases and is often not as accurate as primary data — first-hand data collected from a company’s own operations. LCA data can be useful for guiding business decisions behind the scenes, but there is a risk of greenwash if this data crosses the threshold to the consumer and used as a marketing tool in sustainability claims.

Incomplete, unrepresentative, or inaccurate sustainability data can do more damage than good. Company or consumer, when faced with weak sustainability data, you cannot make an informed choice. This means that brands and designers could inadvertently create products with more impactful materials and consumers could be misinformed at point of purchase. The proliferation of shaky sustainability data in marketing and communications stands to exacerbate consumer confusion, jeopardize responsible purchasing, and derail public trust of overall sustainability performance.

Philippa Grogan is a sustainability consultant in Policy, Fashion and Textiles at Eco-Age

TW: How do you think brands can better communicate a product’s total impact without greenwashing?

Grogan: Many brands are, inadvertently or otherwise, misleading consumers when sustainability claims focus only on the upstream phases of a product. Of course, the production and manufacturing phases have an impact, but so do other touchpoints in a lifecycle — such as the active-use phase and the end-of-use phase. Product-level sustainability communications and claims should, as best possible, focus on the whole lifecycle of the product, otherwise they should be called “production-level” claims.

Instead of relying on tenuous terms and meaningless buzzwords, sustainability communications should detail why the product might have a lower impact and disclose how it has been produced.

Beyond this, products are company output. A “sustainable” product sold by a wholly irresponsible company can never be truly “sustainable.” Sustainability claims and company performance should look beyond the commodity and holistically assess all factors of the business.

TW: Moving forward, what recommendations can you offer to brands?

Grogan: For sustainability communications to be free from greenwash, they should not rely on vague, ambiguous buzzwords such as “eco,” “green,” or “planet-friendly” — these terms largely are meaningless without scientific substantiation.

Another common greenwashing tactic the industry should avoid, is cherry picking favorable sustainability elements without detailing overall sustainability performance. For example, championing the use of recycled materials whilst being unable to trace supply chains, pay a living wage or reduce emissions.

It’s ok to be imperfect, but not ok to pretend something is perfect. Be humble about sustainability performance and be brave enough to share learnings as well as wins. This level of transparency is commendable and can demonstrate an ongoing journey rather than a light switch moment of “boom, now we’re sustainable.”

TW: How important is it to consider socio-economic impact when addressing sustainability?

Grogan: Sustainability is about so much more than the environment. The social impact of a product, company or service is a crucial and inextricable metric for sustainability. This notion is a core focus of the amazing work of Donut Economics and Future Fit Business Benchmark. To approach sustainability, brands need to apply a future-focused and systemic lens. It is vital they think beyond existing sources and materials and also focus on innovations that can reduce the world’s over-reliance on existing materials in the markets such as cotton.

TW: What challenges and opportunities have you encountered when dealing with LCAs, products and brands?

Grogan: The idea of LCAs and LCA-based systems is to crystallize complex concepts into digestible, consumer-facing information that can demystify the science for the average member of the public. However, the methodology, the boundaries, and the input data must be sound in order for the results to have a hope of being accurate.

LCAs can be really useful for guiding business decisions behind the scenes. However, once they cross the consumer threshold and make their way into public-facing sustainability claims, we should exercise extreme caution, even more so if it is from aggregated data from industry averages.

Best practice sustainability communications are accurate, substantiated, measurable, demonstrable, and above all, transparent. Issues arise when initiatives are used as a transparency exercise, but the methodology, boundaries, and input data are behind a paywall.

TW: What are some key issues with the fashion industry’s overall sustainability performance?

Grogan: Some of the most concerning issues linked to the fashion industry largely stem from overproduction, overextraction, and overconsumption of resources and materials. The fashion industry as a whole must seriously rethink its relationship with the natural world, specifically its resource overuse which is not only leading to natural capital depletion, but also exponential volumes of unmanageable and polluting waste. Most fast fashion clothing is produced with planned and perceived obsolescence in mind, meaning that thanks to fleeting trends and poor-quality materials, they are prematurely disposed of to make way for new trendy garments. Many of today’s production and consumption patterns have become detached from earth’s natural systems. If we are to secure a sustainable future, we need to depart form linear take-make-dispose models to technically and biologically circular models where materials can biodegrade or be recycled at the end of use.

Another key issue faced by the fashion industry is the human rights and remuneration of those working in upstream supply chains, such as manufacturers and producers. Fashion’s long, complex, and globalized supply chains result in traceability issues, and it is challenging to monitor conditions, let alone ensure everyone is treated fairly and paid a living wage. This needs to be put firmly on fashion’s agenda.

TW: What is the role of market regulators and policymakers in the fight against greenwash?

Grogan: Greenwashing is everywhere. We have seen a recent shift in market regulator scrutiny of sustainability claims, with many nations’ advertising watchdogs screening brand’s sustainability claims and outlining proposed sanctions for those found greenwashing. It is now so widespread and wields such damaging potential, the only way of combatting it, sadly, is through legislation and regulation on claims.

TW: Is there a need for standardized rules for using sustainable terms in the fashion industry?

Grogan: We can no longer rely on company’s self-improvement initiatives. Government-led sustainability claim regulations are instrumental for unifying global sustainability language and driving real industry change. If earth’s declining ecological health is not incentive enough for our industry to produce sustainably and communicate ethically, then we must involve legal and financial incentives.

September/October 2022