Skip to main content

‘Regulatory Momentum’ Will Root Out Greenwashing

Sourcing Journal’s Sustainability Summit: The Road to 2030 was paved with scientific talk, but there was an outlier that focused instead on semantics.

Greenwashing: The Ultimate Disconnect, explored the challenges of identifying and regulating false advertising claims and explaining the concepts in terms simple enough to be understood by the average consumer.

Olaf Schmidt, VP of textile and technologies for Messe Frankfurt, framed the importance of the issue by noting that 90 percent of all companies make some sort of claim of sustainability, but only 58 percent back it up.

“I don’t know what I find more concerning, deliberate or non-deliberate greenwashing,” said Annie Agle, senior director of impact and sustainability at Cotopaxi, a carbon-neutral outdoor goods company. “What sort of kind of improvement is necessary to realize before you can say that a product is truly eco-friendly, right?”

The U.S. standard for truth-in-advertising is set by the Federal Trade Commission, which in December authorized a regulatory review of its “Green Guides,” the bible for what advertisers can and can’t say regarding eco-friendly claims. The guides haven’t been updated since 2012 and don’t mention the word “sustainability”.

Related Stories

“America is obviously 10 years behind the EU in terms of thoughtful regulation… but we’re starting to see a lot of regulatory momentum,” Agle said, pointing to state laws passed in states like New York and California, especially as they relate to claims made by companies that continue to use PFAS, aka forever chemicals, in their products. “I do think that’s necessary because if there’s not a standard for behaviors, you can’t really standardize claims. If no one has the same definition of what good behavior actually must be, we can’t really talk about what behaviors are actually good and what are beyond compliance.”

Schmidt, whose company is one of the world’s largest sustainable exhibition organizers, putting on 50 events in 11 countries, said Messe Frankfurt tries to ferret out greenwashers, but without clear-cut language and laws just, there’s only so much he can do.

“As a fair organizer, we always say we can’t cause the textile industry to become more sustainable—that’s not possible,” Schmidt said. “We can only offer some platforms to present sustainable products, sustainable solutions, and to be in contact with the international audience and I think that’s very important.”

When putting on trade shows in his native Germany, Schmidt said Messe Frankfurt is able to put together a “green directory.”

“It’s a catalog with a list of sustainable companies and we have an independent jury or experts who screen all exhibitor and only companies who take care on sustainable topics and have certification are listed in this guide,” he said. “At the end, we know not every company is sustainable, so it’s only possible to give visibility to the companies who are more sustainable.”

One way to disable greenwashing is to codify what it means to be sustainable or eco-friendly with actual scientific barometers.

Cotopaxi gets there from the outset, jumping right into the claims of being certified carbon neutral, a position Agle said is made easier by it being such a young company.

“We’ve really designed the majority of our products from scrap materials—not just deadstock, but scrap materials that would end up in the landfill or incineration—so our carbon intensity score is already under 1 percent,” Agle said, referring to metric that measures the amount of carbon emitted divided by $1 of revenue. “I think it’s an important metric for growth and how to measure how successfully you are decoupled from environmental impacts, while trying to continue to realize economic prosperity, hopefully not just for your company, but for society as a whole.”

Katina Boutis, director of sustainability for Everlane, said that while the pending B Corp fashion brand she works for can’t make claims like carbon-neutral, or carbon-negative, setting and delivering realistic and science-based objectives has worked well.

“We’ve set pretty progressive targets around climate ambitions, not the least of which is to reduce our per-product carbon emissions by 55 percent by 2030,” Boutis said. “I think some of the nuance in the language has really come into why we’ve chosen to take this path… In the absence of some of these definitions or governance measures for how to properly account… we’ve really chosen to focus our efforts on aggressive reductions as quickly as we possibly can using science-based targets as a way to benchmark ourselves.”