Greenwashing reviews will further this agenda. “It’s not just about whether businesses are lying in their marketing about a particular product,” says Cecilia Parker-Aranha, director of consumer protection at the CMA. “It’s about whether factually correct information is being shared in a way that could mislead consumers and whether the overall strategy is making consumers think it’s okay to shop a particular business without a big environmental impact.”
The CMA’s ongoing investigation is based on the 2008 Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations. Brands found to be in breach of its guidance may be asked to make changes, issue public statements, pay consumers who have lost out because of false claims, or pay fines imposed by the court.
“Casual Earth Day statements have real consequences for brands,” says Jeff Trexler, associate director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University. “If there is a disconnect between what you say and what you do, you could be sued for consumer fraud, which could have implications for your share price.”
Not everyone is convinced that tighter regulations will actually force brands to cut down on greenwashing. “Brands will get smarter,” says Trexler. “They will move away from general claims towards more specific ones, and admit challenges upfront to create trust and authenticity.” He says this selective transparency could be just as misleading if consumers aren’t able to contextualise certain admissions or compare claims across brands.
Is there any place for brands on Earth Day?
When the low-hanging fruit becomes a potential legal problem, brands may start reconsidering how they voice their support on Earth Day. Legislation could separate the committed brands from the ones who spied an easy marketing opportunity.
“If brands want to be part of Earth Day, they should be celebrating the sustainability efforts being implemented in their businesses year-round, because we can’t purchase our way to making the world better,” says Fashion Impact Fund’s Bannigan. “Earth Day must be led by consumer education rather than consumption,” adds activist Mayer.
New York non-profit Slow Factory is running a “brand-less” day at Moma PS1, where attendees can access repairs, upcycling and screenprinting for items they already own. “Maybe brands could use Earth Day to give employees a rest, close stores and engage with sustainability at scale,” says Slow Factory founder Céline Semaan-Vernon. “We don’t want to see recycled plastic clothing or capsule collections, we want to see brands downsize their offering and invest in circular and regenerative business models.”