Are Brands Who “Give Back” Greenwashing?

It’s no surprise that fashion brands work to paint themselves in a good light to appeal to consumers. One way brands create a positive image is by “giving back.”

What It Means to Give Back

Giving back can look like many things, such as donating money, time, or resources to charities, nonprofits, and other organizations. 

It has become a trend for unsustainable and fast fashion brands to give back to environmental organizations (such as tree planting) in an attempt to seem “green.” While it’s a good thing for a company to give back to the community and the planet, it is a slippery slope from being charitable to greenwashing. 

To understand the debate on whether or not unsustainable brands who give back are greenwashing, it’s essential to understand what greenwashing is. While there are varying definitions, most people can agree that greenwashing is when a company uses deceptive marketing or false claims to make their brand or products appear eco-friendly. My Green Closet’s “Is H&M Actually Sustainable or Are They Greenwashing?” piece offers an interesting look into how the unethical practice of greenwashing can backfire for big fast fashion companies. 

There are about 1.8 million nonprofits in the US alone, meaning brands have endless options when choosing organizations to donate to. Unethical and unsustainable companies who give back to charities benefiting children, the arts, or sports (for example) are not greenwashing via giving back because the charities they donate to are not related to the environment. Donating to these charities will not make a brand appear to be a “green company.” When brands give back to environmental and conservation charities, however, the brands are working to alter their public appearance and show they care about the environment.

Sustainable Brands Giving Back vs. Fast Fashion Brands Giving Back

Both sustainable and fast fashion brands give back to environmental organizations and both publicly highlight why supporting these causes matters to them. There is a difference, however, in what it means for a sustainable brand to give back versus a fast fashion brand. When a sustainable brand donates to an environmental charity, the donation is in alignment with the brand’s values, practices, and business model. 

When fast fashion brands give back, however, it means something different. These brands typically operate on a low-cost, high-volume business model. The goal here is to create clothes cheaply and in high volumes to keep up with trends and sell the largest number of items possible, which has massive negative environmental impacts. Giving back to environmental organizations does not align with the fast fashion brand’s practices; rather, it’s just a way for the brand to create a “green” image and perceived investment in helping the planet. 

An example of a fast fashion brand giving back is Princess Polly. This brand makes monetary donations to Lonely Whale, a marine conservation organization that works to prevent plastic waste from entering Earth’s oceans. At the same time, the brand contributes significantly to plastic pollution through producing extensive amounts of synthetic clothing. Princess Polly also donates to One Tree Planted, a nonprofit that plants trees around the world with a goal of global reforestation. While these donations are clearly positive, they also create a greenwashed image of the fast fashion brand. 

The Bottom Line

Whether giving back correlates to greenwashing depends on whether the brand is actually sustainable or not. When a fast fashion brand advertises the ways in which they give back to the environment, they are creating a deceptive image by making the company appear eco-friendly. In reality, fast fashion brands’ practices and policies are detrimental to the environment. Therefore, this sneaky “giving back” marketing can be categorized as greenwashing. When sustainable brands give back, however, they are simply reiterating their dedication to protecting the planet and therefore are not guilty of greenwashing.

How to Figure Out If a Company Is Sustainable or Greenwashing

Do not automatically assume a company is sustainable simply because they donate to environmental and conservation charities. It’s important to research brands before purchasing from them. Learn whether a fashion brand is sustainable by checking the brand’s sustainability reports. A helpful list of ecolabels on textiles can be found on the Ecolabel Index website. Also check out My Green Closet’s “How to Find and Research Ethical Fashion Brands” YouTube video for detailed tips on how to find sustainable fashion brands in your city and how to find credible sources online. My Green Closet also features a “How to Shop Ethically & Sustainably” YouTube playlist containing over 20 videos covering topics such as how to spot greenwashing and how to find affordable sustainable fashion. 

Even though greenwashing is a common issue, it’s definitely possible to find and support brands who are actually trying to make positive changes in the fashion industry!

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