5 Signs of Greenwashing to Watch For

These days, greenwashed is the new black – here’s how to avoid buying into the trend

Greenwashing – the practice of marketing a product to make it appear more eco-friendly than it actually is – is everywhere. It’s a very easy trick for brands to execute, because both global and local labor laws and supply chains continue to be widely unregulated. It’s also very effective. Especially among the shoppers concerned with the environment – the ones like me, laden with guilt at the thought of shopping, but who continue to do it anyways. Plagued by eco-anxiety, our demands for a better future are sold back to us as new products, this time packaged with a green sticker boasting a composition of “75% organic materials”.

These claims are impossible to verify, and they deceptively alleviate the guilt we experience from further cluttering the planet in order to sell us more stuff. We’re impressionable, and we eagerly invite in anything that will soothe climate angst and assure us that we can keep buying things we don’t need. As both global citizens and consumers, it’s in our interest to educate ourselves on how to identify and avoid falling into these greenwashing traps.

Some tactics are more pervasive than others – these are The five big ones

A new option from RyanAir, the European budget travel line notorious for their extensive add-ons.


These three things are the same thing. But what do they actually mean?

Net-Zero and the like are all about balancing any carbon output a company produces. The simplest way to think about it is planting one tree for every 10 kilos of carbon one emits, be it by driving a car, taking an airplane, or incinerating overstock. (Fun/not fun fact: the average American would need to plant 15 trees a day to offset the carbon they emit based on the food they eat.)

Large scale carbon offsetting can be achieved through forest conservation, afforestation or renewable energy expansion. In recent years, companies have opted instead to buy into carbon offset programs – these are ventures where businesses, governments and individuals can pay someone else to cut or remove a given quantity of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. One such enterprise, a non-profit called Cool Effect selling carbon-offsets, reported a 700 percent increase in sales at the end of 2019 – the same year that the fashion industry’s sustainability reports were first made accessible to the public.

While companies like Cool Effect may be doing great work, it’s a bit of a problem that we’re still allowing companies to buy their way out of the messes they’ve created with these minor gestures. Solutions like this address a symptom of the problem rather than the cause of it. In doing so, we’re enabling the industry to continue investing in these shady practices, rather than putting pressure on them to get to the heart of the matter. Greenpeace calls carbon offsetting an outright scam.


Ethically and environmentally, leather is one of the worst materials. The tanning industry is responsible for a massive amount of deforestation, water and land overuse, and gas emissions. Not to mention the horrific degree of animal cruelty imposed on the cattle themselves – more than 50 million animals are farmed and slaughtered each year just to make handbags and shoes. No one should buy leather, unless it’s vintage, and even that’s contestable on moral grounds.

Calls to boycott the textile came early on in the sustainable fashion movement, and vegan leather (formerly known as pleather) has done an impressive job of positioning itself as leather’s virtuous alternative: the market for the material is on course to be an $89 billion dollar industry by 2025. While it is without doubt better for the animals, it’s becoming clear that the same isn’t true for the planet. With very few exceptions, the vast majority of vegan leather is plastic which is made from – you guessed it – fossil fuels.

It’s not all bad news though – the few exceptions mentioned are exciting. Mycelium (mushroom in the vernacular) leather manufacturing has accomplished tremendous engineering feats in recent years. Companies such as TomTex Co. and MYLO unleather –which is used by Stella McCartney and Ganni lead the way in 100% circular vegan leather production.


Beyond leather, fabric innovation remains complicated. Bamboo, for example, has been having a moment. Bamboo is a very fast-growing crop that requires no pesticides and regenerates by itself. Through select chemical processes, it can be transformed into a variety of fabrics, including Bamboo Rayon, a soft, viscose textile that’s increasingly used for underwear, socks, and other garments that sit close to the body. The material feels great and is super breathable, and the fabrics are definitely a step up from polyester, but to call them eco-friendly is a stretch. Rendering the pliable wood into fabric requires intensive, majorly toxic chemical procedures that are super harmful to workers and the world.

But like the leather debacle, not all hope is lost. There are a few stand-outs worth mentioning and worth looking for. Lyocell, more commonly known as TENCEL, is a drapey, silk like fabric made from recycled woodchips, and it’s growing in popularity amongst designers. Unlike bamboo and other types of plant-based rayons, the material is guided by a closed loop production practice that recycles 99% of its chemical use. However, precisely because it doesn’t cut any corners in the production process, it remains a more expensive option than its synthetic counterparts, restricting its accessibility.

green washing eco-friendly
This image is made up to show you how easy it is to fake eco-friendly.

4. GREEN Labels

Associating certain visual imagery with particular ideologies or values is not new – the advertising industry has made use of our brains’ capacity to code this way since before the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. As the demands for sustainability grow louder, companies are once again taking advantage of our aptitude for association, this time invoking imagery of the environment.

“Eco-friendly” “Good for the planet” “Eco-Collection”. There are no laws stopping companies from using marketing that looks like a certification of authentic sustainability. They have ZERO requirement to actually be sustainable. While this is beginning to change –especially in Europe– don’t let a label lull you into thinking a product is better than it actually is. Something claiming to be sustainable but at the price point of fast fashion simply is not. Be wary of these labels and brands simply using green color schemes on their packaging as a way to deceive you.

5. MADE FROM RECYCLED _____________

This one is a little trickier. A number of companies now boast that their garments are made from recycled materials, including plastic water bottles. While these are a better option than clothes made from materials like virgin polyester, our brains somehow make the mistake of thinking that because they’re made from recycled fabrics, they’re also recyclable. Unraveled author Maxine Bédat, puts it this way: “we’ve been led to believe that recycled and sustainable are synonymous, when they are anything but.”

It’s actually better for plastic water bottles to be recycled into new plastic water bottles, so that they can be recycled AGAIN when their time is up.

When they’re processed into clothes they’ve reached the last stop on their recycling cycle, and will head to landfill or ocean or incinerator next. Recycled materials beyond plastic follow the same trajectory; some also go through extremely toxic processes to get recycled.

more sustainable fashion” – anyone else see the irony here?


If a new t-shirt costs $7 and says it’s sustainable, that’s greenwashing.

These trends will persist so long as society continues to put profit and growth above all else. The reality is staring at us: we need better, not more. What we’re being given instead is more of the same in better packaging. It’s incredibly frustrating, as a consumer, to know that you’re being lied to. It’s hard to know how to react. The best we can do is educate ourselves. Check out the video below for more info.

-Steph Lawson


How to Recognize Greenwashing in the Beauty Industry
Fast Fashion Can Never Be Sustainable
Ten Sustainable Fashion Terms to Familiarize Yourself With
Five Takeaways from Inconspicuous Consumption