"Green branding" allows companies to chime with the growing interest among consumers

"Green branding" allows companies to chime with the growing interest among consumers

Many textile brands now make claims of operating with varying levels of environmentally mindful or sustainable practices. But while green branding has its pitfalls, companies could be braver in eco-marketing.

The benefits of "green branding" allow companies to chime with the corresponding growing interest among consumers. The risks are equally significant, as gaining a reputation for 'greenwashing' - falsely claiming a product or process is 'green' - can be significantly damaging to a company's public image.

"Many fashion brands are doing some green branding by being environmentally responsible to different extents," says Dr Christina Wong, associate professor at the Institute of Textiles & Clothing at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

"Their products can gain pro?table access to different markets, with environmental consequences lessened through reduction in the use of hazardous chemicals and conservation of natural resources and support from environmentally conscious customers," she adds.

Green branding, however, involves some fundamental red lines, according to Rob Drake-Knight, founder of UK-based eco-friendly clothing brand Rapanui. "It has to start with science and fact; it can't start in the marketing department. It has to begin with the sustainability guys, otherwise you get found out very quickly.

"You shouldn't be allowed to put something on the market that isn't what you say it is. You have to be careful because people in the industry who know about these things will see right through you."

Scot Case, director of markets development at US-based UL's environment division, welcomes a succession of successful prosecutions by the US Federal Trade Commission of companies making unfounded sustainability claims. Last October the commission imposed a US$450,000 penalty on one company that made false claims about the extent to which its plastic could biodegrade and be recycled for other uses, including textiles.

Even so, Drake-Knight recognises how useful green branding can be. "It's beneficial and meaningful because there is a groundswell in everything in consumer goods for stuff that is 'right' - you see it in textiles, in the local food movements. It's partly just consumers saying, 'Have a bit of respect for me; I'm not stupid. I would like to know more about where this item comes from.'"

Dr Wong notes that while "Patagonia and Timberland are putting effort into environmental protection," "many brands are being careful to avoid 'greenwashing' their customers, especially where there are laws that require them to provide all the necessary information on their labels."

Product claims
So can you get away with just claiming a product is green as long as you have the documentation available? Drake-Knight believes this can be the case - if the limited space on garments reflects the grading of sustainability in a nuanced way.

"You have to respect your customer's intelligence," he says. "Provide them with the easy-to-digest information but make it possible for them to have an option to look at things in more detail, to access a report online."

Dr Christina Dean, founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based non-governmental organisation Redress, feels companies should be bolder in publicising the steps they are taking - even if their motives for doing so are mixed.

"Many brands are busting a gut to do the right thing. That may not be because they have a 'green' heart or halo, but because they don't want to get a 'green' backlash for doing nothing. But they are not talking about it; they are afraid they will get picked on by the media for not doing everything right. No brand is perfect - but it's a pity they are so cautious for fear of criticism," she says.

Consumers checking
Magaly Fuentes-Sagan, owner of eco-clothing and accessories information service Eco Fashion World, agrees that companies should be open about their efforts - and their shortcomings. "Consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about the criteria that categorises a company as 'green' and this knowledge is leading them to do a bit more checking around.

"It's in the best interest of the company to be transparent and maybe say, 'We are currently taking 'x' steps to be green but are consistently working towards making ourselves even more 'green,' rather than to say they are already something they are not. Once exposed, that one bit of bad press can haunt a company forever," she says.

Fuentes-Sagan believes that the profile of the typical consumer interested in sustainable clothing means that the impact of the costs of green branding may be overplayed.

"People who understand what ethical and sustainable fashion is about are really drawn to those types of products. In some cases, price takes second place to what the product represents, whether it is tied to a social cause, made of organic materials or fair trade certified," she says. "The story behind the product can definitely take the spotlight to a buyer who is aware, informed and committed to supporting the ethical fashion movement."

Fuentes-Sagan also thinks it is essential for brands and manufacturers to be open with customers. "The push in the industry is for consumers to ask a lot of questions and be aware of where their products are made, how they are made, by whom."

"The push on the other end, for brands and retailers, is for them to be as transparent as possible. It's up to the consumer to demand transparency. They can let their dollars do the talking and not invest in any company or products that are not transparent enough," she adds. 

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