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Greenwashing: How to tell if a business is really environmentally friendly

Many brands are realising the power of green products to draw in customers. However, there are also some using green messaging while continuing practices which are far from environmentally friendly.

Written by High Life North
Published 10.07.2020

Hannah Bullimore

What is greenwashing?

You may have seen the term greenwashing flying around social media as a way to call out those brands claiming to have eco-friendly products or lines, while failing in all other areas to care for the environment. Greenwashing means making false claims about the level of care taken to reduce the environmental impact of products – for example claiming to be ethical or environmentally friendly because a product is made with a recycled material, while using sweat shops for production or destroying any returned products.

Greenwashing is a very new concept but many consumers are becoming ever more aware that fast fashion brands in particular will create ‘eco ranges’ but fail to make changes in the majority of the items they produce.

Claims about the level of care taken in ensuring environmentally friendly products goes largely unchecked, although in the UK advertising standards are starting to take greater notice of claims made by brands. However, language is carefully chosen by these brands – for example organic cotton is often advertised, but this isn’t a guarantee that the material is environmentally friendly due to the amount of water it takes to produce and even if an eco-material is used, if sweatshops are used to produce an item and the item is flown across the world to get it to the store, can it really be called environmentally conscious?

What does a company need to do to really be ethical and sustainable?

Some brands are created to be environmentally and ethically conscious. They are created with considerations in place from the very beginning. Other brands struggle to shift toward eco-awareness and make claims online that they are doing so – but what do they really need to do to be ethical and sustainable?

  • Pay workers fairly
  • Ensure factories used aren’t polluting the local environment
  • Use recycled and natural materials wherever possible
  • Use low emission transport to get their product to store and to the customer
  • Avoid destroying returned products
  • Use plastic alternatives to package and label products
  • Produced locally – this is difficult for large brands but as consumers, shopping locally with smaller businesses tends to be a more environmentally friendly option
  • Charging fair prices to pay fair wages – a £2 t-shirt is costing someone something somewhere

To truly shop sustainably, fast fashion shouldn’t be your first option and we should continue to consider alternatives. For example, simply wearing what we already have, only replacing items rather than shopping for entertainment, shopping second hand and when we can afford to shop with brands that have been specifically created to be environmentally friendly.

For a brand to truly be environmentally friendly and ethical, it needs to have a true belief in the cause with an ethos and open practices that reflect this.

Signs it may be for revenue rather than ethics

When bombarded with eco-friendly products and ranges, how can you tell when something might not be as ethical as they’re saying? My advice would be to begin by looking at the brand as a whole. If there is one eco-friendly product or range amongst hundreds of other products that aren’t labelled as eco-friendly, then the brand is unlikely to be following sustainable practices.

Green fashion is not a trend, therefore branding that suggests it is has probably been designed to increase sales, not to benefit the environment. Common cases of this are slogan t-shirts referencing things like Save the Turtles. While the slogan has an eco-sentiment, the t-shirt might have been made in a sweatshop or contain high levels of man-made materials that cannot biodegrade.

Before purchasing, make sure to research what you are buying. Quick purchases and snap decisions mean that you might slip up, as often fast fashion brands want you to shop quickly and cheaply and this simply can’t be environmentally sustainable. Check out a brand’s ‘About’ page to learn about their history and eco-practices. If they don’t have a specific section on their environmental practices, they probably aren’t an eco-brand. Even if they have a section, check the language. Make sure the brand explains their practices well and that the information is easy to understand.

You might also consider reaching out to the brand, asking for information on production and efforts to cut down emissions and how they pay their workers. These are all valid questions in the quest to buy products that are sustainable and ethical.

Tips to reduce your carbon footprint

Fashion is one of the world’s biggest polluters and we currently have enough clothes on the planet to clothe the next five generations of humans. Yet our appetite for cheap, disposable fashion isn’t slowing, even though many of us are aware of the negative impact fast fashion has.

To help you get started reducing your footprint, here are our top tips:

Before you shop, check your wardrobe. Many of us have unworn items hidden at the back of our wardrobes, so start each season by going through what you already own and rediscovering forgotten items.

Avoid trends. Try to shop only for items you know you’ll wear again and again over the years. Shop for items which have longevity in style and quality.

Shop second hand first. For many items, there will be second hand options available, sometimes you can even find unworn items on places like Depop or eBay. Just ensure when shopping, that the items are coming from an individual or second-hand boutique rather than being mass-produced and sold through those platforms rather than a fast fashion website.

Shop with ethical and high-quality brands whenever you can. They are more expensive, but the fewer items you buy the more you can spend on one item and by purchasing items that are high quality, you won’t have to replace them as often. Shop on ethical sites first, before resorting to cheaper, less sustainable options.

Wait a day before you buy. If you’re tempted by an offer or trendy item you hadn’t thought to buy before you saw it, wait a day and make sure you really want it. This is true for everything, from technology to home décor. In fact, wait longer if you can. You might find that your knee jerk reaction to buy, was in fact a reaction to some clever marketing and branding.


A truly sustainable fashion brand that has a wide selection of elegant, high quality products. Thought is available in Fenwick and John Lewis, but their online store is also fantastic. It’s range grow each year and the summer collection is really beautiful this year, with mosaic patterns, elegant cuts and breathable materials. On the website Thought has extensive information on what they’re doing to support the environment.

People Tree

The original eco-friendly, Fairtrade British brand offers a wide selection of fashion for women, from basics to beautiful dresses, to pyjamas, yoga clothes and a number of fantastic collaborations. People Tree is a Fairtrade, vegan brand that is committed to sustainable practices and offers a fantastic range of beautiful, quality clothing that are perfect for a capsule wardrobe that will last for years to come.

Period products are one of the biggest polluters in the world. Disposable period products are washing up on beaches around the world and with half the world’s population needing period care, many of us are used to disposable options. As well as things like the Period Cup, period underwear is a fantastic option to cut down your carbon footprint. The reusable underwear absorb blood, they are then soaked in cold water and then washed on a cool wash. Simple.


This North East based business has a wide selection of yoga equipment, clothes and much more. There is a great range of lifestyle and home gifts, books and general sports equipment. As well as shopping locally, by purchasing from Yoga Matters you are also guaranteed that the products have been carefully selected to ensure suppliers are ethical and sustainable. They are also committed to avoiding airfreight stock delivery wherever possible and have open and honest commitments on their website about everything from reducing waste in their offices to recycling.

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