Ethical business is not just about what you sell, but how you sell it. Almost daily, we see more and more ethical brands and publications battle for the attention of conscious consumers. Many of these enterprises are driven by the increasing profitability of sustainable buzzwords rather than a genuine passion for sustainability. Worse, they’re simply mimicking the marketing tricks of fast fashion despite offering a more ‘ethical’ product, which leads to any messages of ‘conscious consumption’ being diluted by language that misleads and manipulates shoppers.
When the IPCC released their report that warned of just 12 years (now 10) left to slow irreversible global warming, The Guardian was one of the first major publications to enforce language recommendations for reporters in order to reflect the urgency and emergency of this environmental destruction. In 2019, they changed the newspaper’s house style guide to reflect ‘climate crisis’ and ‘global heating’ rather than the softer terms of ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’.
During lockdown, writer Francine Heath wanted to challenge her own linguistic choices by considering how fashion journalists could support slowing down clothing consumption, one of the biggest contributors of global carbon emissions. This spurred her on to write an open letter addressing fashion magazines to stop positioning clothes as ‘essential purchases’ and call time on the term ‘must have’.
“The term triggers negative consumption behaviours and often pushes people to buy something because they start feeling super insecure about what they already own,” Francine tells me, citing various positive responses as evidence that the campaign is helping shift perspectives of language for writers and editors, as well as brands and PRs.
Other common phrases that prompt impulse shopping should also be avoided, including things like ‘last chance, buy now!’ But language relating to shopping behaviour doesn’t stop there, as greenwashing tactics offer brands another clever way to transfix well-meaning consumers. Coined the ‘deadly sins of greenwashing’, some of the most common misleading methods are used regularly in marketing messages to attract eco shoppers with claims of sustainability that have no grounds in reality. These include:
- the ‘hidden trade-off’, where brands shout loudly about some environmental attributes while concealing others,
- ‘no proof’, when reliable third-party verification of claims isn’t provided, and
- ‘lesser of two evils’, a deceptive distraction from the bigger picture of environmental impact.
One of the most pervasive greenwashing sins is ‘vagueness’, whereby a claim is so broad and poorly defined that its real meaning gets misunderstood. There are various examples of specific types of greenwashing language that sustainable brands should avoid in this category, such as ‘green’, ‘natural’, ‘eco’, ‘handmade’, ‘closed loop’ or even ‘100% sustainable’. As shoppers, we need to stay vigilant to these terms because, when used in isolation without evidence, they are nothing more than lip service.
For marketing professionals, storytelling takes shape through language, but the tactics of selling can undermine even the most ethical efforts. The Ethical Move is a campaign committed to spreading awareness of the manipulative methods used to create false demand and a sense of urgency that feeds our overconsumption problem. The team wants brands to take heed of their message that ‘how we sell matters’, for example by pledging to change price tags from ‘charm prices’ such as $19.99 or $297 to round numbers like $20 and $300.
When we take the time to read between the lines of the ‘ethical’ brand content we consume, we discover dozens more marketing tactics that are antithetical to the sustainable ethos of the products themselves. One sales-boosting technique used by a multitude of sustainable brands is ‘buy now pay later’. Payment systems like Klarna and Afterpay can have a significant impact on conscious consumption by encouraging thoughtless impulse buying without consideration of the financial implications. As Elizabeth Bennett wrote recently for Eco Age, the ubiquitous nature of ‘buy now pay later’ schemes can “arguably reinforce the idea that clothes can be bought flippantly.”
These schemes can have a huge positive benefit of making sustainable fashion more financially accessible, addressing a key criticism of the movement. However, brands should be careful to be upfront and honest with their customers about the potential dangers of accumulating debt in their quest to shop ethically. Ideally, they need to help influence considered purchases by pairing ‘buy now pay later’ with capsule collections, small-batch production and made-to-order products with longer lead times, rather than just adding these payment options as an afterthought.
We can’t talk about ethical marketing without also touching on influencers. Influencer marketing now represents 10-20% of ad spend, and the industry could be worth over $15 billion by 2022. While profits soar, the myriad issues surrounding the ethics of ‘influencing’ have been forced into the spotlight. In the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter movement, Instagram account @influencerpaygap was set up to publish data from the closed-door conversations between brands and influencers, sharing anonymous accounts of fees offered to content creators alongside follower counts and gender and racial demographics. Their posts highlight the colossal pay gap between different influencers, but also the various unethical practices within these collaborations, including payment and gifted products equating to less than minimum wage, violations of copyright and usage, and even ‘pay-to-play’ arrangements that make influencers buy products in exchange for discounts.
Another key factor that ethical brands must consider if engaging with influencers is disclosure. While guidelines vary between platforms and territories, it is widely agreed upon that influencers need to disclose a sponsorship, ad or gift clearly to their audience, so brands should strongly discourage any kind of underhand approach.
According to sustainability agency Sunda Studio, responsibility for conscious, considered consumption lies with brand communications. “Responsible business practice is not just about the product being sold but how they’re being sold. We need to be more accountable for our influence and how we communicate with customers,” affirms founder Jamie McIlhatton. In his view, fast fashion marketing has such a strong foothold in the way we even think about consumerism, a cycle where the only real winners are brands, not shoppers. To make a real impact, the slow fashion sector needs to focus on transparency to showcase new opportunities for customers to feel good about themselves and their purchases.
Ultimately, transparency ensures that brand communications are authentically ethical, because with nothing to hide about what happens behind the velvet curtain of digital gloss, brands are able to communicate their values with integrity. Beyond disclosing the details within each stage of the supply chain from seed to store, marketing efforts must be honest and open too. Communicate your processes as well as your ethos with clarity, simplicity and vulnerability. This way, you’ll be influencing a slower, more sustainable cycle of consumption where customers have space to breathe, time to research, and a solid basis for trust.
- The Petition Making Everlane Accountable to its ‘Radical Transparency’ Brand Philosophy
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- Are We Turning Preloved Wears into the New Fast Fashion?
Cover image of an Everlane ad campaign.