What's the problem with greenwashing?

MIA for H&M's World Recycling Week

MIA for H&M's World Recycling Week

Last week, along with 111 million other people across the world, I watched the Superbowl final and with it, the famous high production adverts. At a point in history with as much social and political contention as there is, it's no surprise that a few brands tapped into the zeitgeist and featured some of the most talked about issues of today. But there were two adverts in particular that caught the attention of many and have been continuously talked about in the week that followed; Audi hailed change for women's rights in the workplace and Budweiser celebrated America's history of immigration.

To my knowledge neither brands have a strong history of activism, so my immediate reaction was to question their authenticity in aligning with causes that are so shrouded in public attention. Does Audi really have a boardroom where female head count equals male? Does Budweiser do anything more to reform immigration that use it as a promotional tool? Millions of people, from hundreds of countries would be watching this game and, after being shared, the advert on its own too; I was outraged that these massive corporations could be embellishing their support.

But then I realised; millions of people, from hundreds of countries, would be watching a message promoting gender equality or the support of immigration. In 2016 CBS charged $5million for a 30 second commercial during the Superbowl and Audi and Budweiser spent their money talking about very important and current issues. It reached people that these issues wouldn't usually reach. So does it really matter that they don't practice what they preach when their influence could incite change in people that were, up until now, alienated by it.

Although usually applied to environmental responsibility, this disconnect between cause and action is called greenwashing. There is no industry exempt from greenwashing but the fashion industry especially has come under fire repeatedly over the years.

H&M know better than most that to shout the loudest about the work you do may make you an industry leader but it also puts you in the direct line of fire for cynicism; from the media, consumer and other brands. Despite launching several initiatives to reduce their environmental impact and raise awareness, they still can’t seem to get it right. H&M’s conscious collection is made with only 100% organic cotton but they were quickly criticized for using the majority of the world’s supply. And when launching World Recycling Week, alongside a video by M.I.A, the singer and activist was accused of ‘selling out’ and the high street chain timed it poorly to clash with Fashion Revolution's own remembrance of the Rana Plaza tragedy. Orsola de Castro, founder of Fashion Revolution was reported to tell The Guardian “The outrage is actually that it is disrespectful, we’re remembering the carnage, not staging a carnival where people go around dressed in fashion waste.”

Let me be clear, I absolutely do not condone the act of promoting ethical values when in practice actions don't align, especially if this lack of responsibility has a knock on effect to the consumer. But I can see the value in, at the very least, starting the conversation. If companies are too scared to talk about the small steps they are making for fear of being accused of greenwashing, the ball will never get rolling.

The environmental, social and economical issues we are faced with as a result of the fashion industry aren't simply a matter of declaring change. It will take time and slow but continuous movement from both the consumer and the corporation. Many people on both sides just aren't aware (or don't want to be) of the malpractices. However, if they are repeatedly given incentives to bring their own reusable shopping bag or their clothes to recycle points, won't it normalise 'being green'?

In an ideal world, no, greenwashing wouldn't exist and everyone would be true to the values they say to uphold. But we live in a world that is very far from ideal, so the communication of ethical ideals is communication all the same to me.