The importance of the environmental credentials of fashion brands has grown and, increasingly, marketing functions recognise the need for a convincing and trustworthy approach to the way they conduct business and communicate this with consumers (Goldsmith el al., 2000: 44-45; Ginsberg and Bloom, 2004: 83-84). Coppolechia (2009: 1356) states that over half of the United States ‘baby boomers’ consider themselves to be environmentally conscious consumers and businesses undoubtedly feel the pressure to fulfil their customers’ expectations. In relation to the fashion industry, the green segment of this market is willing to pay more for ecologically responsible products (Laroche et al., 2001: 514; Meyer, 2001: 327-328). The increase in consumer knowledge on environmental sustainability and the preference for strong environmental credentials of products, services and companies has led to the increase in fashion organisations communicating their environmental credentials through marketing activities which has contributed to the creation of the term ‘greenwashing’. Greenwashing is clearly defined by Delmas and Burbano (2011: 65) as ‘the intersection of two firm behaviors: poor environmental performance and positive communication about environmental performance’. Delmas and Burbano (2011) state that three of the key drivers behind firms’ greenwashing is the regulatory context, consumer and investor demand, in addition to limited or imperfect information on a company’s environmental performance, as well as uncertainty about the regulatory punishment for greenwashing in marketing campaigns.
The brand comparison website ‘Rank a Brand’ found that fashion and clothing brands are becoming more adept at developing their sustainability communications highlighting an issue that many brand consumer communications regarding green credentials do not match up with efforts to improve their environmental sustainability. The study found that out of the 368 brands investigated, 63% communicate about their environmental credentials on their website however, only 20% publish a sustainability report (Sweet Skins, 2016). To help support marketers with effectively communicating an organisation’s environmental approach and achievements, the Federal Trade Commission updated their Green Guide in 2012; however, as Fernandez (2016) highlights, the major limitation is that they are guides not ‘rules or regulations’ which supports Delmas and Burbano’s claim that uncertainty about regulatory punishment is a key factor which allows greenwashing to continue to proliferate. As the number of companies using green marketing campaigns in the fashion industry continue to grow, this will mean that, firstly, green brands’ messages will become diluted amongst competitors green messages, secondly, it will be increasingly difficult for marketers to achieve significant environmental differentiation, if this is the brand’s aim and, thirdly, consumers will start to becoming wary as the green marketing overload means consumers are unsure which messages to believe.
The frustration for fashion brands such as Patagonia and Esprit, who take their sustainability approach seriously and have invested significant resources to achieve this, is that direct competitors can still make environmental marketing claims potentially without having to support these through verified evidence. The Green Washing Index (2017) claims that ‘When properly trained, consumers see right through this “green screen”. Then greenwashing backfires, damaging the company’s reputation and, ultimately, their sales’. Therefore, a recommendation for clothing companies, such as Patagonia and Esprit, is to develop marketing and educational campaigns to educate current and potential consumers within their target market on environmental sustainability and on how to recognise potential greenwashing messages and organisations. This could be achieved through collaborating with industry-specific organisations such as the Ethical Fashion Forum or the Green Washing Index and would help consumers make more informed choices.
In relation to marketers attempting to improve fashion brand recognition and preference through green marketing, it is important for a pro-environmental culture and brand identity to be developed. Also, importantly, the environmental claims need to be substantiated through externally verified sources which will improve the credibility of the claims and avoid accusations of greenwashing. Goldsmith et al. (2000: 43-44) and Kim and Damhorst (1999: 20) state that the credibility of the advertiser significantly influences the extent to which the consumer perceives the claims to be made as ‘truthful’ or ‘believable’. Therefore, from a marketing perspective, if significant improvements are desired from green marketing campaigns, it is equally important to focus on internal marketing in collaboration with other functions, for example, sustainability, supply chain management and human resource departments, to embed an environmental sustainability approach into operational decision making. Without a cultural focus (or shift, if this is not the current managerial paradigm) towards a holistic approach to improving environmental sustainability across the organisation, there will be an increased risk that the external green messages do not match, crucially, the consumers’ experience or the internal organisational behaviour.
Coppolecchia, E. K. (2009) The greenwashing deluge: Who will rise above the waters of deceptive advertising? In: (ed.) University of Miami Law Review, 1353-1407. HeinOnline.
Delmas, M. A. and Burbano, V. C. (2011) The rivers of greenwashing, California Management Review, 54 (1): 64-87.
Fernandez, C. (2016) Greenwashing in fashion: will sustainable marketing messages ever become easier to navigate? Fashionista. Available at: http://fashionista.com/2016/08/greenwashing-fashion-marketing; accessed 17 January 2017.
Ginsberg, J. L. and Bloom, P. N. (2004) Choosing the right green marketing strategy: green marketing has not fulfilled its initial promise, but companies can take a more effective approach if they realize that a one-size-fits-all strategy does not exist, MIT Sloan Management Review, 46 (1): 79-84.
Goldsmith, R. E., Lafferty, B. A., Newell, S. J. (2000) The impact of corporate credibility and celebrity credibility on consumer reaction to advertising and brands, Journal of Advertising, 43 (3): 43-54.
Green Washing Index (2017) About greenwashing. Green Washing Index. Available at: http://greenwashingindex.com/about-greenwashing/; accessed 17 January 2017.
Kim, H. and Damhorst, M. L. (1999) Environmental attitude and commitment in relation to ad message credibility, Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management, 3 (1): 18-30.
Laroche, M., Bergeron, J. and Barbaro-Forleo, G. (2001) Targeting consumers who are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products, Journal of Consumer Marketing, 18 (6): 503-21.
Meyer, A. (2001) What’s in it for the customers? Successfully marketing green clothes, Business Strategy and the Environment, 10 (5) 317-330.
Sweet Skins (2016) Greenwashing in fashion. Sweet Skins. Available at: http://sweetskins.com/greenwashing-in-fashion/; accessed 17 January 2017.