Greenwashing 101: How to Never Buy UNsustainably Again

Guide to authenticating honest brands.

Back to Zero
Jul 21 · 11 min read
Photo of a wall with a lit up sign that reads: “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We’re #2” above clothing racks
Photo of a wall with a lit up sign that reads: “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We’re #2” above clothing racks
Photo by Charles Etoroma on Unsplash

When it comes to fast fashion and the beauty industry, there are new things to buy and try almost every week. It’s exciting, and it inspires people to develop new styles and personas, but this volume of output also creates an immense amount of waste. Amid an era that has finally begun addressing the very critical state of environmental and labour malpractices, it can be difficult to tell which brands are genuinely making changes and which are simply hopping on the bandwagon.

There’s a lot to be said about gearing our consumption habits toward a greener and more sustainable future. The best way to abide by the tenants of that future however is to adopt some elements of minimalism, AKA — buy less stuff. By making minimal and educated consumption choices, you’re able to more effectively limit your interaction with companies that are potentially greenwashing. There’s a wide variety of greenwashing out there, but it’s important to note that some tactics are sneakier than others.

Here’s our quick guide to some of the main strategies you may come across in your sustainable consumption journey:

Lately, one of the most popular ways that companies are adding themselves to the green conversation is by launching environmentally-focused lines. These lines, though they may be a step in the right direction, are not synonymous with wide-spread corporate change, or even a legitimate commitment to more sustainable business practices. When you support lines and campaigns like this, you’re effectively supporting a big corporate company that may have a history of environmental abuse and unsustainable business practices.

For example, a lot of the buzz around the H&M Conscious line was positive and people were and are excited about this positive step forward, but the fact of the matter is that H&M still mass produces cheap, low-quality clothing, and one “conscious” line doesn’t excuse or change that. This is a fairly straightforward example, but there are a number of more complicated pathways to greenwashing.

It’s important to understand that many brands we see on corporate shelves are not individuals; they’re owned by big conglomerates that help fund and distribute a wide variety of products. One such brand is Love, Beauty, and Planet, a personal products brand that has been praised for its earth-inspired ingredients, partially recycled plastic packaging, and its social commitments. It sounds good, but the detail that is often ignored or overlooked, is the fact that Love, Beauty and Planet is owned by Unilever.

Photo of “Love, Beauty and Planet” products. Three bottles, pink labels with brand name and pink flowers.
Photo of “Love, Beauty and Planet” products. Three bottles, pink labels with brand name and pink flowers.
Unilever pledges sustainability promise with Love Beauty and Planet via Cosmetics Business

Unilever is one of the largest and most powerful brand conglomerates in the world. With a portfolio of 400+ brands, Unilever’s production spans the globe in a wide variety of markets — we’ll specifically be looking at beauty and personal care. Through brands like Dove and Love Beauty and Planet, Unilever is able to filter and disseminate some carefully constructed key messaging to demonstrate commitments to sustainability, environmental preservation, and social responsibility. But as Daphné Dupont-Nivet’s (2017) article, Inside Unilever’s Sustainability Myth, explains, there is much more than meets the eye when it comes to this narrative.

Unilever is a huge proponent of palm oil; a product widely used in a variety of their personal care and food-related products. Palm oil is an industry that has contributed to a broad-spectrum of human rights and environmental abuses, including deforestation and substandard wages for labourers. Unilever has carefully avoided criticism for its extensive relationship to the palm oil industry, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia through the creation of the “Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), where all stakeholders have equal say and every decision must be consensus-based”.

Aerial view photo of forests in Malaysia being cleared for oil plantations.
Aerial view photo of forests in Malaysia being cleared for oil plantations.
Brian Wallheimer, Purdue University via phys.org

The RSPO allows Unilever to promote their use of sustainably sourced palm oil, however, as discovered and discussed by Amnesty International’s 2016 report, “the RSPO label is no[t a] guarantee but a shield which deflects greater scrutiny”. So essentially, when you’re buying products from Love Beauty and Planet, you’re indirectly buying into a corporate conglomerate that supports this harmful industry, among others. Individual products may not be culpable, put you need to pay attention to whether or not the brand you’re buying from is owned by a parent brand, and look into the parents brand’s environmental and sustainability practises.

Another tool in the greenwashing arsenal is the use of buzzwords. Terms like eco-conscious, biodegradable, renewable aren’t governed by any agency or regulatory scheme. Most of the regulatory work being done to alert and educate consumers about the traps they may be falling into relative to corporate greenwashing schemes is being done by groups like Greenpeace. These ad hoc methods illuminate many of the dark corners where companies attempt to conceal their past discretions or bad business practices.

Dahl (2010) states that among “hundreds of green labels available today, a few are broadly recognized as highly reliable”. Among these reliable labels is the Green Seal, which awards its seal to companies that meet standards set out to examine a product’s environmental impact along every step of the production process, including its supply of raw materials. Every environmental label is not like the other, so it’s important that as a consumer you educate yourself about what these terms mean and if they’re even legitimate in the first place.

One big red flag to watch out for when assessing the validity of a company’s commitments to a sustainable future is the depth of their environmental plans. Many greenwashed brands will provide you with a laundry list of what their intentions are, but no concrete gameplan outlining how they intend to achieve such outcomes. It’s like that classic proverb, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”; if a company doesn’t actually explain the steps they’re taking to achieve their environmental claims, they’re no better than a brand that has a blatant disregard for the environment.

This line of criticism extends further to point out the deceptiveness of inflated environmental claims. Greenwashed companies often colour themselves green based on one or few things they’ve done to address concerns brought forward by critics and consumers without doing their due diligence to ensure their entire production and business model aligns to such claims.

The final, and probably most consistent, greenwashing tactic is the use of overt green imagery, and often the use of irrelevant claims. Bloomberg (2019) released their video called “Are You Falling for Corporate Greenwashing” where they outline the term virtual natural experience. This experience is achieved through the use of vivid, colourful, nature-inspired imagery, that appeals to the consumer’s affinity for natural beauty. As mentioned in our previous article, capturing an audience of consumers with images of the lush, green, Fijian rainforest, while promoting bottled water, is a tactic the company Fiji Water uses to allude to an enhanced, “close-to-nature experience” that is accompanied by consuming their product.

The same issue is seen with product lines like Love, Beauty and Planet, that use cute, trendy, nature-inspired packaging to compliment their partially recycled ocean plastic bottles. The reality is that you’re still consuming a product packaged in virgin plastic, and that plastic is still being largely placed in a landfill, as opposed to recycled or reused in the current cycle of production and consumption.

People picking up plastic and garbage off the beach in blue shirts, on a beautiful day.
People picking up plastic and garbage off the beach in blue shirts, on a beautiful day.
Photo by Ocean Cleanup Group on Unsplash

Greenwashed brands are guilty of citing irrelevant information to bolster their green image. As explained by both Bloomberg (2019) and Fesmina Faizal (2019), brands will literally promote their exclusion of ingredients that may be banned by domestic law. Look out for “free of” statements highlighted on packaging — it may sound good, but half the time, statements like this are meaningless with regard to the green value of the product.

Greenwashing is a prominent part of our collective shopping experiences today, BUT not all green labels are a product of greenwashing. The question then becomes, how do you differentiate between the two?

We understand that the average person doesn’t have the time to do extensive research into which brands are being sincere, and which are not. So, while we encourage further research if you want to make absolutely sure a brand is being responsible, we’ve laid out our tips and tricks on how to spot legitimate brands.

1. Transparency

Transparency is one of the more obvious tells, and one of the first things to look for when checking a brand’s reliability. Brands that are founded on sustainable and ethical values will not only be transparent about their practices, but will likely go above and beyond to show how they’re incorporating those values into their business models.

Some things to look for on the sustainability tab of their websites include a clear explanation of where their materials are being sourced, what those materials are, a step-by-step production line, the labour regulations that have been implemented, and the steps that are being taken to offset carbon emissions and water usage.

Photo of a woman in a green jacket holding an orange and a Boyish branded bag. Word “Sustainability” on top of photo.
Photo of a woman in a green jacket holding an orange and a Boyish branded bag. Word “Sustainability” on top of photo.
Via Boyish Website

Boyish Jeans, although young, has been a leader in the realm of sustainable clothing since it’s conception in 2018. Through their website, Boyish provides a ton of information on the emissions they’ve avoided, the drinking water they’ve saved, the amount of land they’ve farmed without pesticides, waste they’ve diverted from landfills and trees they’ve planted. They take a very intersectional approach to highlight how their practices affect both the planet and the people who work and are impacted by them.

The Boyish model should be used as a framework to follow, and any brand who claims to have sustainable practices will have some form of guide to their business models available to the public. As a rule of thumb, if the information is difficult to find, you can assume that there is likely something to hide.

For more examples of strong corporate responsibility pages, checkout Tentree, Organic Basics, and Kotn.

2. Fabrics

This is a pretty straightforward one because it’s very easy to check the label on a piece, or read the fabrics section on a website to determine which materials the piece is made from. It’s no secret that some materials are more eco friendly than others. Look for products made from natural fibers such as recycled (or organic) cotton, organic hemp, and organic linen, or some newer innovative fabrics such as TENCEL®, Piñatex, Econyl, or Qmonos. Ironically, when it comes to materials to avoid, cotton is also at the top of the list (non-recycled/non-organic, of course). Synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon and acrylic come closely behind, and animal derived materials including wool, leather, and fur are next.

Photo of fabrics folded and hanging on top of one another. Fabrics looks like linen, in muted tones.
Photo of fabrics folded and hanging on top of one another. Fabrics looks like linen, in muted tones.
Photo by Andrew Buchanan on Unsplash

Fun fact: Most unsustainable brands use a mixture of materials to make each garment. What’s the problem with that? When brands try to initiate recycling programs, breaking down garments with multiple fabrics becomes very difficult to do, and the result is that a much smaller percentage of the garment ends up actually being recycled. Try to look for products made entirely of one material (two, max.).

3. Quantity and Consistency

This section is two fold: quantity of stock at any given time, and consistency of new arrivals. The very foundation of a sustainable and ethical fashion brand should be based on a much slower circulation of clothing (AKA– slow fashion). That weekly store intake we mentioned in our previous article for example, is the opposite of slow fashion, and in reality, stores like H&M actually receive shipments up to four times per week. This intake rate is absurd and further encourages this constant cycle of waste.

Slow fashion brands will have fewer items in fewer quantities, and will be restocked less often. This might seem like a disadvantage at first, but what it really means is that the company is avoiding overproduction of stock and attempting to keep their product out of landfills. It’s easier to make this call when skimming a website where you have a full picture of what’s for sale, but it is something to keep in mind when walking into a store as well.

Woman holding a sign that reads “Less is More. It’s Eco-logical” at an environment march.
Woman holding a sign that reads “Less is More. It’s Eco-logical” at an environment march.
Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

4. Price

It’s important to note that because a brand is of good quality and has a higher price tag attached, it does not necessarily mean that it’s an ethical and sustainable brand. Price can however play a part in determining whether or not a brand fits the bill.

Once again making reference to fast fashion as a point of comparison, very inexpensive clothing is almost never made sustainably or ethically. Fast fashion is able to sell at cents on the dollar because they skip steps, underpay and exploit workers, and use harmful and inexpensive production and distribution methods. Generally, it tends to cost more money to avoid these harmful practices, plain and simple.

We know that sustainable pieces can take out a bigger chunk from your wallet, but we’d argue that you are practicing intentional consumption and while that one piece is more expensive it will save you from buying three more just like it in the future. When deciding whether a brand is being sincere with their environment claims or not, simply take into consideration that if they’re able to sell that $5 top, the likelihood of it having gone through the proper channels is not high.

5. Certifications

Disclaimer: companies do not need certifications to be able to perform sustainably, but they definitely do help to provide brands with a sense of credibility. Along with the Green Seal (mentioned above), here are some examples of the basic certifications and associations brands can start with: the Global Organic Textile Standard, EcoCert, the Fair Wear Foundation, Oeko-Tex, Cradle 2 Cradle, the Ethical Trading Initiative, Blue Sign, and Peta’s Certified Vegan (Eluxe Magazine).

Both the Global Organic Textile Standard, and Peta Vegan Approved logos.
Both the Global Organic Textile Standard, and Peta Vegan Approved logos.

(Shameless plug: Keep your eyes open for our upcoming piece on these different certifications; which are worth consideration and which are not.)

Some companies choose to implement their own standards to follow as an alternative to certifications (i.e. pillars of sustainability, routine production line audits, etc.). This is a step in the right direction, and could very well be trustworthy. However, when compared to external standards, this approach doesn’t provide the same credibility, and companies can much more easily exaggerate the impact of their efforts.

Expert tip: Type your favourite brands into Good On You to see where they stand re: the environment, labour regulations, and animal cruelty.

The more we’ve dug into this topic, the more we’ve realized that there is change in the air. The majority of people are becoming aware of the true cost of fast fashion’s affordability (and cheap products in general), and want to make better choices. Here’s to hoping that companies are also becoming aware of these consumer needs and react in genuine, clear, and impactful ways.

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Back to Zero

Written by

Hi there! We’re Audrey and Mara, two recent undergraduates passionate about making complex concepts accessible. Environmentalism and Social Justice.

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

Back to Zero

Written by

Hi there! We’re Audrey and Mara, two recent undergraduates passionate about making complex concepts accessible. Environmentalism and Social Justice.

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

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