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Is April Still the Greenwashiest Month?

Over the last few years, the run-up to Earth Day has become a marketing frenzy. But a crackdown on greenwashing may be changing the way brands approach their communications strategies.
Brands are rethinking their Earth Day marketing.
Brands are rethinking their Earth Day marketing. (Shutterstock)

It begins around the start of April each year: a tsunami of promotions for “sustainable” brands and products keen to leverage the marketing potential of Earth Day.

The April 22 event was conceived some 50 years ago as a way to draw attention to climate issues and galvanise environmental action, but these days it’s often treated more like a shopping holiday that lasts the whole month.

Except this year, something is different. Earth Day pitches are down year-on-year, based on an informal analysis of the volume of emails arriving in the inboxes of BoF’s editorial team. No doubt, April is still young, but the tone of the messaging has shifted as well. Fewer comms teams are circulating shopping recommendations — or at the very least, they’ve clocked not to bother sending them to us.

Instead of pushing upcycled, regeneratively farmed or other buzzword-enhanced capsule collections, companies are hosting educational talks, promoting takeback programmes and offering insights into their broader sustainability strategies.

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Lululemon even managed to drop its first product made using a new polyester recycling technology earlier this week without referencing Earth Day at all.

So what’s changed?

Regulation, for one. Over the last two years there’s been a seismic shift in what advertising watchdogs in major markets like Europe and the UK will tolerate when it comes to sustainability marketing.

Labels once commonly used to market Earth Day collections, like “green,” “eco” and “responsible,” are now risky, if not verboten. British brands got a timely reminder of this last week, when Boohoo and Asos reached an agreement with the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority to change the way they market the environmental credentials of their clothes so that any potential benefits are more accurate and clear.

“The industry as a whole is so much more educated and people are also a little bit afraid of making a mistake and getting called out for stuff,” said Carrie Ellen Philips, co-founding partner at consulting and communications firm BPCM. “What we’re seeing here is that companies are realising that sustainability doesn’t equal one better product, it equals doing better all year.”

The strategic calculus for brands has shifted, too. Launching an upcycled capsule or organic line now ranks as an also-ran in an increasingly saturated market, rather than a distinguishing promotional moment. And for companies really working to improve their environmental footprint, any communication around Earth Day risks getting drowned out or associated with less meaningful actions.

“This is the Hallmark card holiday of sustainability,” said Erin Allweiss, co-founder of communications firm No.29, which represents brands whose businesses are impact-focused. “It’s gotten so loud around Earth Month that we recommend not doing things because it detracts from work going on year round and it gets lost.”

It’s hard to make a credible case to consumers that companies are operating more responsibly while using an event designed to raise awareness about the climate crisis as an excuse to shill more clothes, a key contributor to the problem.

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“In this over-consuming, over-production era, if you meet Earth Day with just another product, you’re not getting the memo,” said Emma Beckett, managing director at Emma Beckett PR.

Increasingly, it seems brands have clocked this cognitive dissonance. And that opens up the opportunity to explore new ways to engage with Earth Day by trying to promote education and action, rather than products.

Further Reading

April Is the Greenwashiest Month

The run-up to Earth Day has ballooned into a month-long marketing moment, even as regulators try to crack down on empty sustainability claims.

About the author
Sarah Kent
Sarah Kent

Sarah Kent is Chief Sustainability Correspondent at The Business of Fashion. She is based in London and drives BoF's coverage of critical environmental and labour issues.

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