Photography by Christopher Rusev

When a brand describes itself as ‘eco-friendly’, ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’, it must be working hard to protect our planet…right? What about that coffee cup you dropped into ‘recycling’ on your morning commute, or that bag of unwanted clothes you took to the charity shop? You were being environmentally responsible…weren’t you?

‘Greenwashing’ is a form of marketing used by brands and organisations to promote the perception that their products or services are environmentally friendly. In reality, their business practices often do little to minimise environmental impacts.

The term was first coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in the 1980s, when public access to information was limited and companies could easily present themselves as caring eco-warriors. 

With information at our fingertips in the digital age, you might assume that greenwashing no longer affects us modern day consumers. But some of the world’s biggest businesses are far from sustainable, and their ‘greenwashing’ tactics could be fooling us into a false sense of sustainability too.

The fashion industry 

Retail giant H&M recently unveiled the ninth edition of its Conscious Collection, that first launched back in 2012. The clothes are made from “sustainably-sourced material” including leather alternative Piñatex, citrus juice by-product Orange Fiber and algea-generated footwear BLOOM Foam.

Photography by Phoenix Han


Fashion brand Monki is also part of the H&M group, and just launched its first sustainable swimwear collection for SS19. Made with recycled polyester and recycled polyamide, the materials come from PET bottles and production waste fibres. The collection will be available in Monki’s stores in 18 European countries, e-commerce and the Chinese online marketplace Tmall, as well as wholesale retailers carrying the brand.

But Ashlea Atigolo, founder of slow fashion menswear brand EBYAK, questions whether large scale retail warrants the term ‘sustainable’. “I think that fast-fashion brands can only be truly sustainable if they change or put a demand on the factories they use to alter their production processes right from the start of how the materials are made,” she says.

“I feel that any brand – whether it be small or large – should only use the label ‘sustainable-brand’ if they have sustainability instilled within their ethos, their production processes and in core of their whole brand.” 

“However, if a company is trying to become more sustainable they should be encouraged – but be clear and transparent to their consumers that this is their progress towards producing better-made fashion.” 

In spite of efforts being made by brands to minimise their environmental impact, it is predicated that the carbon footprint of the fashion industry will increase to 2,791 million tons/CO2by 2030 and create 148 million tons of waste. As our appetite for the latest fashion trends increases, so does the rate at which consumers are buying. According to the Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP), around £140 million worth of used clothing goes to landfill in the UK ever year – just under 1/3 of all clothing. 

At the end of last year, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC)wrote to sixteen UK fashion retailers asking what they were doing to reduce the environmental impact of the products they sell. The committee found that many retailers – including H&M and Pretty Little Thing – had not signed up to the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP), a collaborative framework for fashion companies to reduce their carbon, water and waste footprint.  

“It’s shocking to see that a group of major retailers are failing to take action to promote environmental sustainability and protect their workers,” said EAC Chair Mary Creagh MP. ““By publishing this information, customers can choose whether they want to spend money with a company that is doing little to protect the environment or promote proper wages for garment workers. We hope this motivates underperforming retailers to start taking responsibility for their workers and their environmental impact.”

The recycling ‘greenwash’

An estimated 2.5 billion coffee cups are thrown away in the UK every year – that’s almost 7 million per day. These cups cannot be recycled through any normal public waste collection service due to their plastic waterproof lining. Instead, they must be recycled at specialist facilities where the plastic lining can be separated from the paper. This means that despite the UK’s largest coffee brands claiming their cups are ‘recyclable’, only 1 in 400 actually make it to these specialist facilities

Costa has vowed to become the first coffee chain in the UK to recycle as many takeaway cups as it sellsby 2020. This is around 500 million cups a year. However, in the first six months of the scheme the company only recycled 41 million cups – less than a week’s worth of the total coffee cups thrown away in the UK every year. 

Starbucksalso committed to making 100% of their cups reusable or recyclable back in 2015. However, four years on the company has changed its pledge; announcing to “double the recycled content, recyclability and compostability and reusability” of its cups and packaging by 2022. 

It’s not just coffee cups that we assume are recyclable. Nespresso has made disposable aluminium coffee pods since 1986 and operates in over 60 countries. Since 2015, the brand has pushed to implement recycling schemes with its ‘Positive Cup’ campaign, even involving the likes of humanitarian George Clooney in advertisements. However, Nespresso consistently fails to report how many of these pods are recycled. Like plastic coffee cups, the pods can only be recycled at specialist facilities and require consumers to take them to designated recycling zones. 

Provisional packaging recycling data for the first quarter of 2019, published on the National Packaging Waste Database (NWPD)website indicates that performance for wood, glass, paper and steel have increased compared to the same period in 2018. Performance in aluminium and plastic recycling, however, appear to be significantly under target levels.

Leading the change

Independent coffee chain Boston Tea Party became the first to completely ban single use cups in June 2018. Like other chains, the company originally introduced a 25p discount to people bringing their own cup. However, after finding that only 5% of customers brought a reusable cup, they made the “drastic” decision to ban single use ones completely.

This has seen the company’s takeaway sales fall by £250,000. However, Marketing Manager Ben Hibbard stands by the chain’s decision. “We looked at compostable cups and all these plant-based options,” he explains. “But it doesn’t really matter what cup it is because it is still being produced so there’s energy going into it, and it still ends up in a general waste bin with everything else. We need to reduce what we’re using in the first place.”  

“We did a bit of lobbying with our local council and asked them what their strategy was for recycling coffee cups – they didn’t have one.” Ironically, Bristol – where the company is based – was named the European green capital for 2015. 

“Even though £250,000 is a considerable amount of money we are really fortunate to have a strong have-in business as well. That enabled us to make the change, whereas for an independent it might be that 90% of their business is takeaways and it could be catastrophic.” 

The chain’s decision has prevented 140,000 cups from being issued across its 22 stores. Have-in sales have also risen by 6%; 40,000 reusable cups have been sold to customers; £14,000 raised for local charity and staff turnover is at a record low. 

However, Hibbard thinks it’s unlikely that larger coffee chains will employ the same strategy. 

“I don’t think they’ll make a change as significant as this until there’s government intervention, such as a 20p ‘latte levy’ on takeaway cups.” 
“We were at a trade show not long ago and Pret-à-Manger said that it’s good that the independents are leading the way with these kinds of initiatives. In fact, the independents have a lot more to lose.”

Devonshire water brand Frank Water switched from single-use plastic bottles to glass bottles in 2017 and lost a third of its business overnight. 

“If you’re a one-man band running a café, for you to make this change because you feel it’s the right thing to do could mean losing your business. Bigger companies can invest this money and help to change consumer behaviour.” 

Spotting the ‘greenwash’

Kat Rosati is a brand strategist, who helps companies become more sustainable through production sourcing or connecting with their ideal customer base. “Sustainability can come from so many different aspects,” explains Rosati. “It really comes down to a brand identifying howthey want to be sustainable. It has to be something that they can define. If they can’t do that, it’s usually a pretty big flag that the brand is just using buzz words and wants to play on the hype.” 

Photography by Priscilla du Preez

In terms of the fashion industry, Rosati appreciates that it’s difficult for larger brands to put sustainability before style. “While momentum is gaining for the slow fashion movement, people purchase clothing as an expression of who they are or who they’d like to be,” she says.

“When purchasing a sustainable garment, they are buying the look first and the sustainable part second. At the end of the day a consumer won’t buy a blouse or a shoe that don’t like no matter how sustainable it is.” 

According to Rosati, the biggest ‘greenwash’ giveaway is when a company uses “vague answers” regarding their sustainability. “If they can’t define what actions they are taking to be sustainable, where they want to try and implement more, and if they don’t have a clearly defined roadmap, chances are they are greenwashing.”

“The other thing I look for is transparency. I don’t want to just know that you are working with a sustainable factory, I want to know what makes that factory “sustainable”. What’s the name of the factory, what measures are they taking and what certificates do they have?”

Rosati admits that brands can fake transparency. “The only way to get past it is through unannounced visits and random audits of files.”

Making an impact 

But in order to truly minimise environmental damage, we need to be more informed about the choices we make as individuals. 

Mike Berners-Lee, author of There is No Planet B, writes: “There are two aspects to the way people can make a difference. The first is to personally embark on more traditional low-carbonandsustainable living.”
“The second is to push for the cultural and political change that we need, in every situation: how we influence our politiciansand the things we say and do at work, at leisure and at home.” 

This includes buying less and consuming less. It’s fine to buy a t-shirt made from recycled materials, but how much impact does that t-shirt have when it’s produced in a large-scale factory? And what happens to said t-shirt once you know longer desire it? 

We need to see through the greenwash if we’re going to save the planet.