Since the 1980’s, large corporations have become more responsible for protecting the earth through sustainable and ethical business activities and practices. This is usually done in response to consumer demands requesting eco-friendly products that have minimal waste and footprint. Whereas some brands remain honest and transparent with their sustainable framework, others are simply seeking the praise and loyalty that comes with announcing the release of a new environmentally friendly product line.
Thus, greenwashing “is when a business makes impressive claims about their sustainability to distract from their unsustainable practices” (Tsui, 2020). 62% of people worldwide have astutely used marketing buzzwords such as ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’, abdicating their responsibility to bring in the meaningful outcome. 72% have claimed that they do not necessarily care such so long as it does. This, of course, is not to say that such dishonest brands engage in no sustainable practices whatsoever. They simply direct all focus to the one sustainable act they’ve accomplished while selling their unsustainable products under false pretence. Brands may claim they use less water in their manufacturing, however their factories may pollute the air we breathe. Products may also claim to be made with zero plastic, however the product itself may still not be recyclable. It is suggested that some brands may not even be aware they are greenwashing, however consumers are quickly beginning to call them out on the brands’ deceptive marketing tactics. A recent research shows that only 10% of consumers trust the green information, the same way they did with H&M, Zara, and Forever 21.
“Going green” has become a profitable slogan. In 2015, it was estimated that 66% of global consumers were willing to spend more money on sustainable products. The people who are most likely to seek out and purchase sustainable products are millennials, and it quickly became apparent to brands that the trick all lies within the marketing. Brands, be it mass, premium, or luxury have all fallen victim to this trap, each desperate to generate more sales and growth at the expense of their customers’ trust.
Greenwashing in the mass market, the example of Nestle
Nestle, the well-known food processing company that has been operating since 1866. faced two main issues over the past few years regarding the company’s acclaimed sustainable practices.
Firstly, the brand announced that it would turn all its plastic packaging 100% recyclable and reusable by 2025. Greenpeace, a non-governmental environmental organization, was not impressed with Nestle’s pledge since the company failed to set clear and measurable targets in order to reduce the use of plastic. Greenpeace also came out to say that “a company of Nestle’s size should be setting a strong standard to actually move away from throwaway plastics. It should know by now that recycling efforts are not going to clean up our oceans, waterways and communities. On the contrary, the company’s ‘business as usual’ will only accelerate plastic pollution” (2019.)
The second notable issue is the child labour used to operate Nestle’s factories abroad, specifically in Ghana. What makes this issue particularly horrific is that the company’s use of child labour was revealed and heavily addressed after the company released the advertisement shown below the text. As a result of the public’s shock towards the mislabelled ethical ads and the deceitful information they’ve been fed over the years, a lawsuit was set against Nestle in 2019.
Nestle’s spokesperson stated that: “Forced child labour is unacceptable and has no place in our supply chain. We have explicit policies against it and are working with other stakeholders to combat this global, social problem” (Feild, 2019).
Greenwashing in the luxury industry
Luxury brands usually try to take better care with the way they market themselves and announce their sustainable framework, however corruption in the system is still pervasive. Dior, for example, hosted a “green” fashion show in 2019 where they attempted to showcase their eco-friendly and ethical approach to sustainable fashion by setting up dozens of live trees alongside the runway. Spectators and environmental activists were not impressed by this daring move. How can decorating an entire room with living trees prove your devotion to “going green” when you are, in fact, killing the trees you’ve used as mere props? The luxury brand claimed it had the intention to replant the trees they have used; however, it is unclear whether this promise was kept.
A second interesting example is Dolce and Gabbana‘s attempt at an eco-friendly synthetic fabric. Although the fabric itself is smooth like silk and believed to have true potential, the way in which it is made completely ruins the whole purpose of trying to be sustainable in the first place. Experts who have disappointedly revised D&G’s supply chain see more harm than good with the unethical practices used.
“Unfortunately, most of it is still produced in a very dirty process, causing water pollution and an alarming array of mental illnesses, strokes and cancer close to factories in India, China, and Indonesia” (2020).
Sustainable fashion “done right” and how to differentiate it from greenwashing
Despite the known disparity between the high objectives set by companies and what is done in the real field, some companies are properly trying to implement sustainable development. Although there is a possibility of criticism, Gucci is definitely one of the luxury brands that show remarkable business transformation to take the responsibility and accountability for climate change. Gucci is not only innovating its business model to become a better fit for the environment, but leading other industries’ stakeholders to take part in its commitment. For example, Marco Bizzarri, the CEO of Gucci, launched the ‘CEO Carbon Neutral Challenge,’ which renovated the whole business operations and supply chain manuals. These moves were not only limited to Gucci itself, Bizzarri led other leaders to participate in his initiatives.
Most greenhouse emissions are generated at the supply chain and it is highly difficult to meet its sustainability goal if a company does not own the complete control on its whole production process. This is why the CEO convened a cross-industry discourse with other CEOs to implement a “360-degree climate strategy,” to curtail the total greenhouse emissions generated by their business activities.
Given the sustainable development implemented at the managerial level, Gucci is not deceptive of its sustainability goals; it is more than a brand image shift at the marketing level. What Gucci has shown to the world so far is that it wants to take care of the planet together with other industries. Solidarity is what differentiates it from other brands that promote themselves as sustainable brands.
The future of the luxury industry if it were to embrace a complete sustainable approach to fashion
There lies three factors with the power to impact the future of the luxury industry into moving towards sustainable fashion.
Firstly, would be the education on both employees and consumers. Taking into consideration of sociological context of greenwashing, the companies are exposed to the impulses to irresponsibility abuse ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’. Therefore, the design team, suppliers and all the accountable producers should be involved in sharing the importance of sustainability. The consumers’ growing concern about sustainability and social issues after the public health crisis consolidates the importance of environmental and social governance. Most consumers may rethink to buy the life cycled, longevity product rather than being temporary and disposable like their inexpensive counterparts.
Meanwhile, customers want transparency when it comes to what they are buying and retailers are catering to this shift in numerous ways, including making sustainability more visible on their respective websites and retail stores worldwide. Luxury brands are strongly encouraged to build and share the concrete transparent process of the production.
Secondly, the way in which luxury brands and luxury groups have already begun to change for the better in priorities across the fashion industry. For instance, many luxury retailers are embracing second-hand initiatives. Second-hand fashion is set to surge in the coming years, and the luxury brands may collaborate with public donations and foundation to donate excess products to charity.
Lastly, embracing the circular fashion approach, an economic system that aims at minimizing waste and making the most of resources in the future. It will challenge fashion’s linear production line that ends with clothes being discarded in landfills. The new supply chain system will be established in the future.
As the focus on moving towards a circular economy grows, vintage has grown in popularity over the past five years. While there is still a long way to go, many luxury brands are pledging for change.