Wednesday 25 August 2021

What Do We Mean by Greenwashing and Woke-Washing? | SFS #2

Welcome to the second instalment in my series Slow Fashion Simplified, where I break down all the different terms in conversations around ethical and sustainable fashion. Today, I'll be looking at the terms greenwashing and woke-washing.

Greenwashing is a term that is used a lot by ethical and sustainable fashion campaigners, particularly when calling out brands. I know I use it a lot myself, but it can be confusing why something is labeled as greenwashing if you’re not an expert. Sometimes it can be blatant, sometimes it can be a lot subtler and more cleverly done. Woke-washing is used in a similar way, but how is it different from greenwashing? Hopefully this hope will help you crack the greenwashing and woke-washing codes! 

What is greenwashing?

The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined in 1986 by Jay Westerveld in an essay about how hotels encourage their customers to reuse their towels, and it essentially means that a company spends more on the marketing of its products as sustainable than on actually making their products sustainable. This is something that crops up time and time again and seems to be getting worse in recent years and months as a consumer awareness of the climate crisis rises. Obviously, greenwashing didn’t just spring into existence in 1986, it has been around for practically as long as we have known about climate change and global warming. Now it’s more prevalent than ever as the climate crisis is getting steadily worse and brands want to avoid accountability for their part in causing it. 


In terms of fast fashion, this often takes the form of brands who produce thousands if not millions of garments every month and who barely pay their workers showing off their ‘sustainable credentials’ with recycled polyester and organic cotton eco-collections. They say they are aiming for more sustainable fabrics by 2025/2030 but don’t tell us any information on what those fabrics actually are, what percentage is ‘more’, where they’re sourcing those fabrics or who grew and harvested them. They also won’t mention anything about paying their (mostly women) garment workers a living wage, improving their working conditions, and ensuring that garment workers are part of their policy-making. They won’t mention them because they don’t do them and that is bad PR and doesn’t fit with their goal ‘sustainable’ image because it’s not f*ckng sustainable.


It seems like there’s a new case of greenwashing every day lately, and there are some horrific cases out there. Boohoo are even trying to kid us that they give a single sh*t about the environment – seriously? 


Probably the most notorious example of greenwashing in the fashion industry however, is H&M. In 2012 they launched their ‘Conscious’ Collection', which aimed to provide consumers with more ethical and sustainable options. This collection has nearly been running for a decade, and yet the only thing that actually seems sustainable about it is that it’s made out of organic cotton, and even that’s not as sustainable as brands like to make it out to be. This collection has been growing to include more and more products each year, the opposite of what is actually needed from a sustainable business: degrowth. There is also no evidence they pay their workers a living wage, they have a history of sexual and gender-based violence in their supply chain, and have yet to renew the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Safety. In their latest campaign, H&M have been using the child climate activists to appropriate their image and have good results show when someone searches the terms ‘H&M’ and ‘activists’ on Google rather than all of the campaigns against them. 

Image source

But green- and woke-washing are not exclusive to the fashion industry, far from it. Companies like Shell and Amazon are always coming up on my TV with adverts proclaiming how much they’re doing to tackle the climate crisis and develop renewable energy sources, when one is trying to build a new oil field off the coast of Scotland and the other is sending its CEO into space for a 10-minute joy ride


Governments are also offenders in both of these means of lying. Take the UK Government for example. They claim to be a world leader when it comes to tackling the climate crisis and even though they’re set to approve a new oil field (the one proposed by Shell) and our Prime Minister flew from London to Cornwall for a conference on climate change. The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, which is set to approve Cambo (that new oil field I keep banging on about), has also been releasing a series of paid-for/promoted tweets highlighting sustainable businesses. Maybe Stop Cambo first yeah? 


For more greenwashing campaigns currently trying to hold the wool over your eyes, check out this blog post

What about woke-washing?

Woke-washing, sometimes also known as CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) -washing, has become a more popular term in recent years, highlighting similar issues to greenwashing. Instead of brands marketing themselves as supposedly eco-conscious, woke-washing is when a brand markets themselves as a company with a social conscience but doesn’t follow through with the actions to back it up. I kind of wish there was a better name for it, as the word 'woke' has been appropriated from its original meanings/use by Black communities, and is now used in a very cringey way but a lot of white mainstream media. This is the phrase currently popular for describing when brands are lying about their social impact, but CSR-washing is definitely more appropriate for a lot of people to use, and certainly important to acknowledge the trend of brands lying about their part in social justice movements. 


Every social issue you can think of has probably been milked to within an inch of its life by almost every fashion brand out there. You have the classic fast fashion ‘feminist’ t-shirts but who pay their largely female workforce poverty wages, the brands which have rainbows everywhere possible during Pride but don’t do anything for the LGBTQ+ workers in their supply chain (check out Who Made My Pride Merch for more on the rights of LGBTQ+ garment workers), and the brands who posted black squares during summer 2020 but have done nothing to restructure their supply chains or head offices to empower people from minoritised ethnicities. 

Image source

Think of the Black Lives Matter t-shirts brands like In The Style brought out last summer. These are a prime example of woke-washing. In The Style made these t-shirts incredibly quickly after George Floyd’s death so that it was incredibly unlikely they were manufactured ethically. Despite these t-shirts making it seem as if In The Style want to dismantle white supremacy, that argument is void wen their entire business model is based on the exploitation of black and brown women.  


Similarly, the term ‘GirlBoss’ was popularised by NastyGal founder Sophia Amoruso – suggesting the brand is the pinnacle of feminism! Over the years, NastyGal has had several lawsuits against them for discrimination against pregnant workers, and in 2017 the brand was taken over by the Boohoo Group, a company renowned for their mistreatment of workers and high levels or production. Not sure Sophia Amoruso is the feminist icon she thinks she is. 


When it boils down to it, greenwashing and woke-washing just means lying. Brands lie to us all the time to make us think they are better than they are so we will be more likely to give them our money. But unluckily for them, we can see past the bullsh*t. 

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If you liked this post you might like: 5 Greenwashing Campaigns Trying to Fool You


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