I recently ended a 6-month stint working in retail. As a consumer I used to buy more than 50% of my clothes from this brand. I loved the fabrics, the way the clothes fit my shape and how they were designed in the UK. But I never really stopped to think much about their business practices. Why would I? I want to enjoy shopping for clothes that make me feel good. And besides, they used paper bags instead of plastic and their brand message matched the lifestyle I aspired to live. Sometimes we would all rather remain naïve to what might be going on behind closed doors in the brands that we buy in to. Beyond money or management issues, what niggled at me during my time working in retail was not to do with co-workers or rude customers, it was to do with plastic.
On Thursday and Friday mornings I would often find myself in the stock room upstairs unpacking large delivery bags filled with clothing. This task could take up to a few hours to finish because each piece of clothing was individually wrapped in plastic. The company I worked for are probably far from the worst offenders, but plastic waste in companies is not just limited to food. I have seen many an initiative lately around ditching plastic straws and cutlery, but there is far less being said about fashion companies who use ridiculous amounts of non-biodegradable materials to protect their clothing during transportation.
As an environmentally conscious individual working in retail I found it interesting to watch the behaviour of consumers as awareness around plastic waste rose in the last year. I saw customers praising us for not using plastic bags, while I knew full well that we had probably filled about three bin bags full with plastic waste that morning. I personally pin much of the UK’s sudden interest in plastic waste in the last six months to the showing of David Attenborough’s final Blue Planet IIepisode in November 2017. The episode detailed the destruction and devastation caused to marine life due to our dumping of plastic waste and ended with a brief soliloquy from Attenborough, stating that, “the future of all humanity, and indeed all life on earth, now depends on us”. All over social media there was a rallying cry to do something about our destructive habits, and many companies rose up exclaiming how they planned to change. But in the midst of all this chatter, how can we really know whether the companies we buy in to are making real, sustainable change or whether they are simply riding the latest conscious wave while continuing to harm the planet?
The term ‘greenwashing’ came about in the 1980s to describe the behaviour of corporations who attempted to portray themselves as environmentally responsible. CorpWatch, a U.S. based non-profit that keeps tabs on the social responsibility of U.S. companies, explained that greenwashing is when a company attempts “to preserve and expand their markets or power by posing as friends of the environment”. There are countless examples of companies that are banking on environmentalism; who suggest that they have the environment at the heart of their values after making one small environmental move, yet a deeper look at their business practices shows that 90% of their moves are environmentally destructive. It can be hard as a consumer, and tiresome, to decipher whether a company is in fact legitimately sustainable and cares about the environment or not.
It has been two years since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed by many of our world leaders, and in 2018 we are still in a position to make changes that could stop serious long-term disasters caused by our environmental failures. In November, David Attenborough’s words were not simply shown on our Sunday night screens for dramatic effect, we are at a crossroads with little time to spare. The fact is that we, as consumers, have more power than we are led to believe. We need to shine a bright light on greenwashing and make it impossible for companies to fool us into believing that they care. Because if we let them greenwash us with their phoney sustainable practices, we will continue to live in over-polluted cities, continue to give our well-earned money to companies that do not respect our personal values and continue to be a force of destruction to the beautiful habitats the world over, that we are already losing at a startling pace.