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Greenwashing and its seven sins

That conscious or organic line of products may not be environment-friendly -only a green marketing tactic. Find out how you may be falling in this trap just like us.

By Rhythm Seth

I recently bought a simple cotton T-shirt from a fast-fashion brand. It had a green tag indicating it was part of their conscious collection. Reading the label forced me to pause and think about what it meant. How can a fast-fashion brand claim to sell ‘sustainable clothing’? The brand’s app didn’t provide any clarity about these ‘sustainability claims’.

The fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world, with 85% of all textiles ending up in landfills. Fast-fashion brands with their multitude of collections are significant contributors to the mess.

I ended up researching about it, only to fall an internet rabbit hole all about ‘greenwashing’. How is this relevant to this incident, let me explain.

What is Greenwashing?

According to the Cambridge dictionary, ‘Greenwashing is designed to make people believe that a company is doing more for the environment than it is’.

Companies and organisations will end up spending more money on marketing and PR campaigns to appear green. They could instead spend money on policies or practices that are environment-friendly.

A simple way to understand this is to look at US President Donald Trump’s proclamation of being the “number one environmental president since Teddy Roosevelt”.

Trump’s claims are blatantly untrue since he recently pulled the US from the Paris climate agreement. He has continuously called climate change a hoax, relaxed air pollution regulations and allowed oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

While Trump’s attempt at greenwashing is easy to understand, companies do it a bit more subtly. Tactics include using vague words like green, sustainable, eco-friendly just for marketing purposes. They do not give any explanation about the claims and utterly devoid of accountability.

What does greenwashing look like?

Brands will package their product in shades of green colour or use nondescript leaves and petals to seem environmentally conscious.
One such example is McDonald’s. In 2009, European McDonald’s decided to change the colour of their logos from yellow and red to yellow and green to “clarify the responsibility for the preservation of natural resources”.

McDonald’s, with its enormous use of disposable packaging, has a long way to go to be anywhere close to ‘preserving natural resources’.

This problem is not just prevalent in Western countries. Here at home, brands love to use words like organic, ayurvedic or natural without providing any proof or certification. It is not just green-coloured packaging. Companies use a variety of methods and tools that are often hard to spot.

So what can we do as consumers? In 2010, a study by Terrachoice came up with the ‘seven sins of greenwashing’. These sins help to identify how brands can fool us.

The seven sins of greenwashing. All names.

The sin of hidden trade-offs

A trade-off happens when companies reveal minimal information to appear more environmentally friendly instead of considering all parameters of production. 

In 2018, Starbucks introduced a strawless lid doing away with plastic straws to seem environmentally conscious. The new top became a source of controversy since the recent change contained more plastic by weight than the old design.

The sin of no proof

Claims which have no scientific proof, supporting information, or certification by credible organisations is a sin in every sense.

In India, anybody claiming to sell khadi products needs a certification from the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC). Still, fake khadi goods are sold freely in the market.

The sin of vague language

Companies often use vague, ambiguous language to make claims. For instance, many times, products claim to have “all-natural” ingredients. While ingredients like arsenic mercury and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring, they are poisonous at the same time.

The sin of false labels

This sin includes the creation of false certifications or labels to mislead consumers.

Himalaya Herbals displays a bunny with a cross on top on their packaging to symbolise animal cruelty-free products. Yet the brand has no certification by a legitimate organisation or endorsement is found to support this claim. However, they continue to use the symbol because they advertise their ‘no-testing on animals’ policy.

The sin of irrelevance

An environmental claim that has no relevance to the product itselfis just a blatant attempt to appear green. Companies like Carmessi claim to sell “biodegradable” sanitary pads. An experiment by Youth Ki Awaaz revealed that they do not compost fully. Unless these pads are composted at home (which is highly unlikely) their biodegradability is irrelevant.

 The sin of the lesser of the two evils

A product that claims to be greener than others in its category but the whole type is environmentally unfriendly. 

One such example is of clean-burning natural gas. Burning natural gas, when compared to coal, produces less carbon dioxide. However, even a small percentage of methane (2-3%) released during the fracking process, is much worse for climate change than CO2.

The sin of fibbing

Some organisations don’t even hide making false claims. Outright lies may not be that common but are still existent.

In 2015, automakers Volkswagen professed that their diesel cars had lower emissions than petrol cars. While in reality, they had rigged 11 million of these diesel engines with software that tricked emission tests. The vehicles were emitting 40 times more than the legally allowed limit of pollutants.

Greenwashing is more prevalent than one would think, especially in the new age world where ‘sustainable‘ and ‘organic’ have become the new ‘it’ words. It will take an aware and smart consumer to spot all these sins.


Rhythum works as a freelance fashion stylist. She has previously written for TheQuint.com, BridesToday.in and L’Officiel magazine. She loves documentaries about fashion and is currently experimenting with soap-making.

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