Greenwashing and textiles

29 12 2009

I have been saying for years that fabric is the forgotten product.  People just don’t seem to care about what their fabric choices do to them or to the environment.  (Quick, what fiber is your shirt/blouse made of?  What kinds of fibers do you sleep on?)   They are too busy to do research, or they’re gullible – either way they decide to believe claims made by many product manufacturers.  And I can’t really blame them, because the issues are complex.

Green products are proliferating so quickly (the average number of “green” products per store almost doubled between 2007 and 2008, according to TerraChoice’s Greenwashing Report 2009) and adding so many new consumer claims that the term “greenwash” (verb: the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service) has become part of most people’s vocabulary.    In the area of fabrics, the greenwashing going on has led the FTC to make the publication of its new Green Guide on textiles a priority.

Incidences of greenwashing are going up, and that means increased risk:

  • Consumers may be misled into purchases that do not deliver on their environmental promise.
  • Illigetimate environmental claims will take market share away from products that offer legitimate benefits, thereby slowing the spread of real environmental innovation.
  • Greenwashing will lead to cynicism and doubt about all environmental claims.  Consumers may just give up.
  • And perhaps worst of all – the sustainability movement will lose the power of the market to accelerate real progress towards sustainability.

The first step to cleaning up greenwashing is to identify it, and Kevin Tuerff (co-founder of the marketing consultancy EnviroMedia) and his partners have hit on an innovative way to spotlight particularly egregious examples. They’ve launched the Greenwashing Index,  a website that allows consumers to post ads that might be examples of greenwashing and rate them on a scale of 1 to 5–1 is a little green lie; 5 is an outright falsehood.  This hopefully teaches people to be a bit more cautious about the claims they hear.  Read more about greenwashing here.

TerraChoice published its six sins of greenwashing in 2007 but added a seventh sin in 2009.  Let’s look at these sins:

1)      The Sin of Worshiping False Labels:  a product that (through words or images) gives the impression of third-party endorsement or certification where none really exists; basically fake labels.  Examples:

  1. Using the company’s own in-house environmental program without further explanation.
  2. Using certification-like images with green jargon including “eco-safe”, “eco-preferred”.

I’ve begun to see examples of products which claim to be certified to the GOTS standard  (Global Organic Textile Standard) – but the reality is that the fiber is certified to the GOTS standard while the final fabric is not.  There is a big difference between the two.  And the GOTS-certifying agencies have begun to require retailers to be certified – to keep the supply chain transparent because there have been so many incidences of companies substituting non- GOTS products for those that actually received the certification.

2)      Sin of the Hidden Trade-off:  a claim suggesting that a product is “green” based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.  The most overused example of this is with recycled content of fabrics – a textile is advertised as “green” because it is made of x% recycled polyester.  Other important environmental issues such as heavy metal dyes used, whether the polyester is woven with other synthetics or even natural fibers  (thereby contributing to other environmental degredation), the fact that plastic is not biodegradeable and contains antimony or bisphenol A  may be equally important.  Cargill Dow introduced it’s new Ingeo fiber with much fanfare, saying that it is based on a renewable resource (rather than oil).  Missing entirely from Cargill Dow’s press materials is any acknowledgement of the fact that the source material for these products is genetically engineered corn, designed by one of Cargill Dow’s corporate parents, Cargill Inc., a world leader in genetic engineering.  (See our blog postings on genetic engineering dated 9.23 and 9.29.09) That’s a potentially huge problem, since millions of consumers around the world and several governments have rejected the use of genetically engineered (GE) products, because of the unforeseen consequences of unleashing genetically altered organisms into nature.

3)      Sin of No Proof:  An environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification.  Google organic fabric and you can find any number of companies offering “organic and natural fabrics” with no supporting documentation.   And the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals really took exception to this claim:

4)      Sin of Vagueness:  a claim so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. ‘All-natural’ is an example. Arsenic,  mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring, used widely in textile processing,  and poisonous. ‘All natural’ isn’t necessarily ‘green’. Hemp is a fabric that has been expertly greenwashed, as most people have been led to focus on the fact that it grows in a manner that it is environmentally friendly. Few realize that hemp is naturally made into rope and that it requires a great deal of chemical softening to be suitable for clothing or bed linen.  Or this ad from Cotton Inc.:

5)      Sin of Irrelevance:  An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.  The term “organic” is the most often used word in textile marketing – and what does it really mean?  Organic, by definition, means carbon-based, so unless the word “organic” is coupled with “certified” the term is meaningless.  But even “certified organic” fiber can cause untold harm during the processing and finishing of the fabric – think of turning organic apples into applesauce (adding Red Dye #2, stabalizers, preservatives, emulsifiers) where the final result cannot be considered organic APPLESAUCE even though the apples started out as organic. It is said that the amount of “organic cotton” supposedly coming out of India far outweighs the amount of organic cotton actually being grown. It is common practice for vendors to call a batch of cotton “organic”, if minimal or no chemicals have been used, even if no certification has been obtained for the fiber. It’s also generally understood that certification can be “acquired”, even if not earned.

6)      Sin of Lesser of Two Evils:  A claim that may be true within the product category, but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole.  Again, the use of recycled polyester as a green claim distracts from the greater environmental impact that plastics have on the environment,  the much greater carbon footprint that any synthetic has compared to any natural fiber,  the antimony used in polyester production, the fact that polyesters are dependent on non renewable resources for feedstock…the list goes on.

7)      Sin of Fibbing:  just what it says – environmental claims that are simply false.

I’d like to add an additional sin which I think is specific to the textile industry: that of a large fabric company touting it’s green credentials because it has a “green” collection  (sometimes that “green” collection is anything but) – but if you look at the size of the green collection and compare it to conventional offerings, you’ll find that maybe only 10% of the company’s fabrics have any possible claim to “green”.  Is that company seriously trying to make a difference?

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