BoF Logo

The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.

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.
Earth Day 2023.
For many fashion brands, Earth Day has become a marketing moment. (BoF Collage)

It’s one week into April and it’s already begun.

With Earth Day mere weeks away, promotions for “sustainable” brands and products are going into overdrive. The April 22 event, first held in 1970, is meant to galvanise environmental action, but nowadays it’s often appropriated as a marketing moment that lasts the whole month.

Anyone paying attention to the high-profile regulatory crackdown on greenwashing that’s played out over the last 12 months would be forgiven for feeling a degree of whiplash.

Major brands from H&M to Asos have been caught up in investigations that have prompted them to change the way they talk about their environmental efforts. Last month, the EU served notice on brands selling empty sustainability claims with the publication of a long-awaited draft of new greenwashing rules.

It seems lots of companies didn’t get the memo.

So far this month I’ve received more than a dozen emails marketing products and brands to shop on Earth Day.

Leaving aside the obvious cognitive dissonance involved in using a day dedicated to protecting the planet as an excuse to push products, many of the promotions are littered with vague buzzwords like “green” and “clean” that have been called out by advertising watchdogs.

Some choice examples include claims products are “carbon negative” thanks to tree-planting offsets, or green because of their use of repurposed recycled plastic bottles — the kind of marketing the European Commission warned last month was particularly likely to mislead consumers.

“The message hasn’t filtered through yet,” said George Harding-Rolls, campaign manager at environmental campaign group Changing Markets Foundation.

That’s partly because the consequences of flouting emerging marketing restrictions are still being tested and vary from market to market. Norway and Denmark have been fiercest in enforcing anti-greenwashing action. The UK is in the midst of an investigation into big fashion brands’ marketing claims and the EU’s proposed rules are still wending their way through the slow legislative process. In the US, a number of brands have faced lawsuits claiming their eco marketing misled consumers and the Federal Trade Commission is in the process of updating its guidelines for environmental marketing.

But it will likely take visible enforcement action to drive awareness beyond big brands with large legal teams and the highest exposure to scrutiny and reputational risk, said Harding-Rolls. Without that, regulation “may turn out to be a very floppy stick indeed.”

On the other hand, with or without effective regulation, consumers are becoming more sensitive to spurious eco marketing, particularly around events like Earth Day. As a result, any activations linked to the event should be approached with care, particularly for brands that want to have a credible platform to talk about sustainability-related topics.

“It seems so entirely cynical to use Earth Day in any way to sell new products,” said Harding-Rolls. “It’s like a litmus test as to how much companies know and how committed they are to sustainability.”

It’s exactly the same uncomfortable balancing act environmentally minded brands have confronted with Black Friday, a mega-shopping holiday totally incompatible with efforts to protect the planet. Nonetheless, plenty of brands have found clever ways to tap into the event without condoning it, shuttering stores or only selling secondhand items. But Earth Day carries those sensitivities multiplied.

If brands want to engage with Earth Day without getting side eye, their efforts can’t be about selling things at all — even by talking loudly about how they’re choosing not to sell anything on the day itself, said Erin Allweiss, co-founder of communications firm No.29, which represents brands whose businesses are impact-focused.

“Do something else to support activists and legislators doing the work,” said Allweiss. “Use your platform to elevate what is happening.”

For more BoF sustainability coverage, sign up now for our Weekly Sustainability Briefing by Sarah Kent.

© 2023 The Business of Fashion. All rights reserved. For more information read our Terms & Conditions

More from Sustainability
How fashion can do better for people and the planet.

This week, New York played host to one of the world’s largest climate confabs, but there was little visible presence from fashion’s biggest companies. If the industry doesn’t pull up a seat at the table, it risks getting left behind.

view more

Subscribe to the BoF Daily Digest

The essential daily round-up of fashion news, analysis, and breaking news alerts.

The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
Introducing The BoF Brand Magic Index
© 2023 The Business of Fashion. All rights reserved. For more information read our Terms & Conditions, Privacy Policy, Cookie Policy and Accessibility Statement.
Introducing The BoF Brand Magic Index