According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Greenwashing is defined as "misleading the public by falsely representing a company or product as being environmentally responsible". Greenwashing claims have skyrocketed in recent years, primarily due to shifting consumer demand for sustainable products and the rise of fast fashion.
The emergence of eco-conscious shoppers has presented significant economic incentives for brands to capitalize on. While this has led to the success of companies like Patagonia, who are often referred to as the gold standard of sustainability for brands, it has also resulted in an epidemic of greenwashing, where companies intentionally mislead the public for financial gain.
Worldwide interest over time for the term “Greenwashing” - Google Search Trends
It’s not all the fault of dishonest brands, however. Many companies are trying to adopt more sustainable and ESG initiatives for the right reasons, only to fall short due to the inherent complexities currently present in the industry. One of the main areas of confusion and debate that has plagued the sustainability industry for years is around what the term “sustainable” actually means.
Take a t-shirt made from 80% sustainable materials and 20% untraceable materials. Does that count? How about a t-shirt that uses 100% organic cotton but has a high carbon footprint because it was shipped by air? The lack of a universally agreed-upon definition of sustainability has made it difficult for brands and consumers alike to navigate the space, even when their intentions are pure.
The veracity of the term “sustainable” is only made more challenging when also accounting for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors. Should a product with a carbon-neutral footprint be called sustainable if it was made using forced labor? While labor standards would technically fall under the ESG umbrella and are not directly related to sustainability, it seems wildly unethical to make sustainability claims about a product at the expense of humane and safe labor practices.
In order to tackle this problem, we first need to unpack a few things. We need to stop treating sustainability as a black-and-white problem, and start to recognize the supply chain complexities involved. Furthermore, we need to understand the limitations of our ability to accurately evaluate and quantify certain criteria relating to sustainability and ESG standards.
By taking a more granular, bottom-up approach and focusing first on what we can control and measure, we present brands with an opportunity to rebuild their supply chains sustainably and build trust with their customers not by being perfect but by being honest.
The goal isn’t to be 100% “sustainable” from day 1. The goal is to build a supply chain with full transparency from source to store so that brands can restore integrity and trust with their customers and provide a foundation for real, measurable improvements to be made incrementally. Doing so will allow brands to report on progress backed up by trusted data rather than resort to vague and unsubstantiated marketing claims that will only hurt the brand in the long term.
Successful technological integration into the supply chain has the potential to bring about radical process improvements and end-to-end transparency through robust data collection and smart data analytics. This data can be presented to the customer in the form of product passports. These digital passports will provide all the information customers and brands want to know about a product, including a product’s history, along with authenticated sustainability and ESG certifications, comprehensive supplier profiles, as well as any additional third party data such as lab test results and carbon footprint information.
Compiling an authenticated product-specific report that is linked to the physical product via a QR code will provide consumers with the transparency they desire and brands with an enormous value add and differentiator over their competitors.
Navigating the sustainability industry can be challenging, both for brands and consumers. Lack of transparency has eroded trust, fueled by a rapid rise in cases of greenwashing. Integrating new technologies into supply chains from the ground up provides an opportunity for brands to accurately measure aspects of their supply chains and make real, measurable progress towards sustainability. These improvements can be shared with buyers through product passports, bridging a trust gap and providing a valuable sales tool and value add for brands.
If you are looking to improve the sustainability of your supply chain and are interested in joining the Relloe product passport pilot program, please send an email to email@example.com.
Edward RouthFounder of Relloe