Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Truth in Greenwashing


Greenwashing is defined as “the intersection of two firm behaviours: poor environmental performance and positive communication about environmental performance," and has become a popular tactic in response to recent consumer demand for more sustainable goods and services, especially in wealthier nations with a “disposable culture”[1][2]. This demand stems from the growth of science-backed environmental consciousness within the past few decades, but has been capitalised upon as a quick way to turn a profit from a customer’s good intentions[3]. Fast fashion companies are notorious for this practice, due to their global markets and cheap goods, which allow for profitability to continue while allowing consumers to look past how their products came to be. The ‘truth’ is that these two disciplines haven't quite found an effective way to work together, which creates tension in today's over-consumptive Western world.

Greenwashing and the EnvironmentEdit

Environmental studies is a discipline that uses analytical tools to evaluate human impact on the environment. In fast fashion’s case, this represents critically demonstrating the impact of their accessible, inexpensive and produced quickly products that keep up with current trends. The truth implied here is science-based and objective.

Annually, around 80 billion pieces of clothing are purchased (the majority going to the United States), bringing in 1.2 trillion dollars for the fashion business. The availability of fast fashion pushes consumers to purchase more, increasing demand for raw materials, and creating waste at both production and disposal stages. The majority of the discarded clothing goes to landfills, so from a purely quantitative standpoint, the eco-friendliest course of action would be to lower manufacturing rates[4][5].

Manufacturing is primarily located within nations with cheap labor, especially in China and Bangladesh. Their sustainability goals and resources may differ from their buyer nations, making environmental (and ethical) issues more likely to slip through the cracks. For example, 90% of clothing purchased in the US includes either cotton or polyester, both of which can have serious effects on worker health. Additionally, cotton growth is water-intensive, and polyester is derived from oil making it difficult to dispose of or recycle[6].

The Case of H&M's "Conscious" LineEdit

In 2010, the Financial Time Deutschland reported that the cotton within H&M's clothing that was certified as ‘organic’ from India was actually inorganic. The scandal impacted brand reputation as H&M was one of the first to introduce organic cotton into their clothes in 2004, and since 2007, has been producing garments that are 100% organic cotton. The move originally allowed H&M to be seen as a green firm that cares about the environment[7].

More recently, H&M was also criticised for greenwashing their “Conscious” collection, by making it unclear to consumers what the percentage of the garments had actually been recycled, according to the Norwegian Consumer Authority[8]. Ultimately, H&M cannot back up all of their claims. Their statements are formed from normative truth, a phenomenon where humans declare something good or bad based on qualitative judgement. H&M wants their products to appear eco-friendly, while the objective truth shows that their manufacturing changes are not necessarily effective in heralding a sustainable change.

Greenwashing in marketingEdit

Greenwashing is a prevalent practice primarily because of the financial gains that it brings, as well as an improved brand image that increases consumer purchase intention[9]. Given marketing’s goal to increase profitability, the objective truth about the advertised products becomes irrelevant. Truth becomes constructivist; advertisers create their truth about products, which is later sold to the consumers.

Much of broader environmental messaging is formulated to shift the blame onto the individual, while these companies pump emissions and pollution into the environment, and even withhold information relating to future climate change, as Exxon and Shell did in the 1980s [10][11]. They can create a form of guilty normative truth in consumers’ minds, making them believe that they are the ones at fault. Then they appease them by greenwashing destructive practices, making consumers feel better about buying from them in a world where everything carries an environmental impact[12].

However, research proves that the greenwashing brings desirable financial effects only when unacknowledged[13]. Consumers, after learning about products being greenwashed, significantly lose trust in that specific brand, and tend to avoid their products[14][15]. Therefore, an effective greenwashing campaign has to successfully deceive customers, at least to an extent. This approach is in direct opposition to the environmental point of view, where scientific, positivist truth is paramount.

Acknowledgment of greenwashing, however, does not influence only the company that took part in the greenwashing. It can influence the perception of all other products previously deemed to be eco-friendly, even the ones that truly are. It negatively affects person’s trust in the ‘green’ label, effectively lowering purchase intention and making them more suspicious towards seemingly unrelated products[16]. This can have significant effects on the green movement as a whole, legitimate or not.

Opposition to GreenwashingEdit

The most obvious example of the tensions between the disciplinary views are the movements focusing on counteracting greenwashing. Its harmful effects have been acknowledged by some of the world’s governments, who have established laws and authorities to fight these practices. Instances include the guidelines provided by the Federal Trade Commission in the United States, some of which are are aimed against the potential greenwashers and carry legal consequences. Several companies have already been prosecuted as a result[17]. Additionally, the European Commission recently passed new regulations to sort companies by sustainability status in order to deter future investment into their practices. This has had pushback from industry experts wondering if it will do more harm than good, but the move is certainly encouraging transparency within business practices into the spotlight [18].

Examples of the tensions are also visible in the actions of other, non-governmental entities, such as a not-for-profit organization Two Sides[19]. Its anti-greenwashing campaign has resulted in a few hundred companies removing misleading marketing claims[20].

In certain cases, it can even be the companies themselves pushing for more stringent measures to disclose environmental impact. In a significant example of both the market and environmentalism working together, DuPont, a large manufacturer of harmful CFCs, skewed the market towards themselves by switching to greener practices, then both advertising that fact and suddenly supporting environmental regulation, hurting competitor sales [21]. This is a constructive interdisciplinary approach that ensures profitability, forces companies to go green in order to compete, and does not drastically mislead consumers.


The public is gradually becoming more aware of misleading practices such as greenwashing. Though brands try to suppress truth and maximize profit through marketing, customers are increasingly willing to do their own research, using positivist scientific resources to do so. Ultimately, it is difficult for these two disciplines to work together, as their goals are radically different and often exclusive. However, an interdisciplinary perspective is vital in order to find an optimal middle ground, where the benefits are maximised with respect to both ethics and environment. It is important in fields such as politics, where interests of both parties clash in attempt to impose their own truth, but a broader view could lead to favorable compromise.


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