Dodging greenwashed gifts: 'Marketers know we are primed and waiting with our wallets open'


’Tis the season to buy stuff you don’t need that trashes the planet. ’Twas ever thus. At least ever since Queen Victoria decided Christmas was about having a giant tree in the house bedecked with ornaments and gifts. Or New York’s elites decided to bring the season’s festive street parties inside and formalise the fun with status-signifying trinkets.

In 2017, environmental charity Hubbub went to the trouble of estimating the amount spent annually on Christmas jumpers in the UK – £220m (A$392m) – and surveying people about how they used them. One in four binned their sweater and 35% admitted to a single wear.

There are no figures available for the quantity of Santa-print boardshorts and barbecue-ready boob aprons gifted in Australia. But as news breaks that the weight of human-created stuff is now equal to that of all life on Earth, casting an environmentally aware eye on our shopping choices seems more urgent than ever. We must green our gifting.

If only it were that simple.

There are millions of “eco-friendly” products spruiked as reusable, compostable or biodegradable, recyclable, vegan, natural, earth-friendly and planet-saving. Sustainability sells. Look on Lyst and you’ll probably find that apron “crafted from organic hemp” – the global search platform reports a 37% increase in searches for sustainability-related keywords since the start of the year.

More of us are worried about the health of the planet. We want to learn to live sustainably; we are concerned about climate change and species loss. Our kids are anxious about plastic pollution. A supermajority – 85% – of respondents to this 2019 survey by Southern Cross University said they would make a conscious effort to buy from eco-friendly brands in future.

The problem is marketers know we are primed and waiting with our wallets open, and the rise of the conscious consumer is mirrored by a rise in greenwashing by brands. Indeed, things have become so bad that the UK’s competition watchdog is investigating. The Competition and Markets Authority is looking into examples of brands “exaggerating the positive environmental impact of a product or services; using complex or jargon-heavy language; and implying that items are eco-friendly through packaging and logos when this is not true”.

Here, the Australian consumer law prohibits companies from misleading consumers, including through greenwashing, and the environmental claims in advertising and marketing code warns that claims should be truthful, substantiated and verifiable; relevant to the product or service and its actual environmental impacts, and not be deceptive, vague, ambiguous or unbalanced.

We should add distracting to that list. One of the most common ways big companies greenwash is by making a big fuss about their shiny, happy eco-initiatives, while most of what they do is just unsustainable business as usual.

The sheer scale of eco-claims means the watchdogs can’t keep up. Greenwashing is such a problem in fashion, for example, that forward-thinking brands such as Ganni and Noah are going the other way – distancing themselves from the term “sustainable fashion”. Patagonia says that “eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainable’ are on our internal list of dirty, banned buzzwords”.

How often are these words used to describe a product accompanied by a life-cycle analysis or a takeback program? Or by details about the company’s carbon footprint or any goals to reduce it? How often is there any mention of good water stewardship or protocols to keep hazardous chemicals out of the environment at the wet finishing stage?

I just Googled “eco gifts” and the first thing that came up was a sort of blanket-poncho hybrid, covered in cartoons of smiling avocados, and marketed as “so soft that it feels like you’re hugging a sheep”. Don’t worry, no sheep were harmed to make it. “It is also 100% cruelty-free.”

Vegan claims makes sense when applied to meat, dairy and leather alternatives. Or cosmetics that routinely use animal-derived ingredients or are often tested on animals. But marketers are slapping the trending word on things that never used animal products to begin with. Suddenly every scrap of cheap polyester is branded “vegan” or “cruelty free”. Tell that to the marine creatures swimming about in oceans polluted by the thousands of tiny microfibres that are shed every time we wash our synthetic clothes.

According to Fashion Revolution, “a polyester shirt can have more than double the carbon footprint of a cotton shirt, but synthetic fibres generally have less impact on water and land than cotton. Synthetic fibres made from recycled materials such as crushed plastic bottles … have around 50% lower emissions than using virgin fossil fuels but the microfibre release is likely to be the same”.

Fashion Revolution is a global consumer-facing campaign that launched after the Rana Plaza garment factory disaster. The big idea was to get shoppers to ask more questions about brands’ supply chains, but over the years it has moved into workers’ rights advocacy, policy work and broader consumer education. One of their solutions is to simply buy less. “Rather than buying new, fall back in love with the clothes you already own,” it suggests.

Another is to DIY more. Make Smthing Week coincides with the holiday shopping season and “hacks a mega-moment for consumerism” by encouraging people to make, fix or upcycle something instead. It’s supported by Fashion Revolution and Greenpeace.

But what if the conscious consumer in your life really wants something shop-bought this year? Bring your inner cynic to those eco-claims. Do your homework. Does the brand disclose deep detail around their sustainability strategy, goals and progress?

Consider buying from businesses that give back to those in need, or support marginalised communities with good, fair jobs. Shop items accredited by trusted third party organisations such as Fairtrade, Australian Certified Organic, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or Cradle to Cradle.

Buy from social enterprises, local upcyclers or small makers who are transparent about their short, ethical supply chains. Seek out something artisan-made with a story behind it, where you can (digitally) meet the makers and track the impact the work has had on their lives. For homewares and fashion, look for the Nest Seal, or the UN’s Ethical Fashion Initiative. There are many more.

It takes a bit of time, this research, but it’s doable. Check out the Guardian Good Gift Guide for inspiration. But most of all, ask yourself: does the intended recipient of your gift really want this thing? Will it delight them for more than a moment? Does it hold true value for them? If so, go for it. Just no more novelty boardies please.