Sustainable is Out: How to Stand Out as an Ethical Brand When Everyone is Greenwashing

Every year on April 22nd, Earth Day is a celebration of a movement that began in 1970. In 2023, it falls on a Saturday, but you can celebrate anytime!

Eco-friendly brands have never been in higher demand than they are now. Consumers have woken up to mass consumption, and they want to feel good about looking good. However, purpose-led brands are going to have to do a lot more than splash ‘sustainable’ across their communications.

I’ve been studying this space at the Kangan Institute since 2009, way before sustainable was a mainstream word and before it was cool to be wokey cokey. 

But now, the landscape has changed again. With a dubious audience and years of greenwashing (by brands I will not mention) trailing behind us, our words are going to need an overhaul to blow suspicion and regain trust. The brands that truly care will need to shout it from the rooftops in a way that resonates.

I first became interested in protecting people and planet on the fashion scene because I was a participant in the fast fashion system. As a designer, then a QC, then a Global Compliance Manager, then a Garment Tech, then a Creative Director, for various fast fashion companies, I saw firsthand what was happening in order to get 10,000 of the same garment to stores - fast. (It's not called fast fashion for nothing.)

In the first instance, I felt it odd. A misalignment. Something off. You see, here I was stationed at my desk in five-star surroundings, going on business trips, being wined and dined, only to tell another set of humans on another continent to make the clothes I was designing. This all sounds fine on the surface of it - capitalism is a given, right? -  except once I visited the factories for myself, I saw fashion illuminated in a way I couldn’t un-see.

Women who were underpaid, overworked, and managing their workspace in complete squalor with three forks between three hundred people in a kitchen you wouldn't dream of eating in, with fabric bolts piling up the stairwells (an inferno waiting to happen), were only the beginning of it. 

Surrounded by chemicals, the factories were barely breathable, let alone workable. For those who hadn’t met their deadlines (fast fashion stops for no one and nothing), a slap on the wrist would do the trick. Children would walk home after school in the dirt to meet their mothers. If they didn’t fall asleep at Mum's feet, they worked all night to help complete her tasks - also known as child slave labour. Think this is no longer happening? It is. 

This ethical dilemma led me down an environmental path. What else was the fashion industry responsible for? Turns out, quite a lot.

For ethical and eco brands, writing a single ‘About’ page with a peppering of words like, 'sustainable, conscious, caring, considered' is a good start, but it’s not enough. So, what’s an eco-conscious brand like yours to do, among the incessant noise of pretence?

1. Words Matter. 

Sustainable is out. Survey your audience to understand which words resonate for them, or try these on for size:

  • Conscious 
  • Honest
  • Transparent 
  • Renewable 
  • Recyclable 
  • Circular 
  • Awareness 
  • Ecological 
  • Eco-friendly 
  • Earth-conscious 
  • Biodegradable 
  • Provisional 
  • Actionable 
  • Benevolent 
  • Humanitarian
  • Devoted 
  • Philanthropic
  • Humane
  • Instrumental 
  • Compassionate 
  • Impact 
  • Innovation
  • Reversal 
  • Intentional 
  • Purposeful 
  • Shift
  • Diversify
  • Regenerate 


2. Showcase Transparent Data. 


Show data and facts, what are you really doing? What changes have been made? What tangible results came from those changes? No fluff or fillers. People can see past it. Numbers will help you quantify to your audience that your promises mean something. Integrity says, “I follow up with my words with action.” No one likes a charlatan. 

In addition to showing an upfront account of where your business currently stands, set further goals that are measurable to remain accountable.   


3. Share Honest Stories. 

As I have done in this intro, tell us why sustainability and ethics matter to you, personally. Why do you care about planet Earth or the artisans who make your wares? What led you here in the first place?

Invite us into your world. Share a photo dump, a behind-the-scenes reel, an interview with a maker, or an event you attended. Whatever you do, keep it real. Your people are itching for a peek behind the curtain. 


3. Collaborate Intentionally.


Partner with other brands and businesses who are taking positive action and who genuinely care, placing you in front of people who have the same values as your brand. Find micro-influencers with an invested audience and spread your heartfelt message horizontally. 


4. Educate Playfully. 

Educate but never lecture. When we educate children through joy, play, beauty, and passion, children engage and are encouraged to participate. Adults are no different when buying into your brand and purpose.


5. Get on the Ground. 

Walk the talk. Attend events that matter, because action shows that you care. Discover a list of environmental awareness and action events here, and explore Ethical Clothing Australia for upcoming ethical fashion events. 

6. Sponsor or Support Charities. 

Through your business, create a thoughtful campaign from which a portion of profits will be sent to a worthy cause. WWF has captured some important earth-loving charities here, while Oxfam is the leader in supporting women who are caught in the fast fashion system. 

If we haven't yet met, I'm Leah, a brand strategist and copywriter for conscious brands and coaches. You can learn more about my story here or discover three ways to reverse climate change right now.