Ethical Soles

Why Greenwashing is a threat to positive change.

The marketing calculus is simple. You label a product ‘green’ or ‘ethical’ and sales go up, as conscientious consumers make what they believe to be the responsible choice, even if it happens to cost a little bit more. Marketers know very well that you don’t have the time or the resources to check their claims against the facts. The temptation to deceive is strong, the chances of getting caught not very high.

Take No Sweat shoes, for example. The name captures the essence of the brand: No Sweat shoes are, ostensibly, sweatshop free. Almost all shoes are made in sweatshops these days, and if you have a problem with that, there are very few alternatives. Blackspot is one. Then there are brands like No Sweat, Ethletic Sneakers, Green Shoes, and Worn Again. No Sweat founder, Adam Neiman, vigorously promoted his shoes as an ethical alternative, and they have been profiled in various green-living publications, trade-shows, and websites.

Few bother to check the claims being made by companies like No Sweat, but let’s say for the sake of argument that you are an extraordinarily conscientious consumer. You go to their website, and read up on them. You’re comforted by what you see. There’s a lot of copy about empowering the workers and changing the world. You dig a little deeper, and read that No Sweat has sent independent auditors to their production facility, and has even published a big fat report online. What more could you ask?

But then you do what almost no one would do. You actually read that long, dull auditors’ report. It’s all about No Sweat’s shoe factory in Indonesia. What you uncover is astonishing. There, buried in the back, are the results of a survey given to the workers of the factory. Here’s the fine print, reproduced verbatim:

Question 2: Have you ever had a bad experience at work, like forced labor or underpayment of wages?

[The numbers indicate number of employees responding, and not percentages]
Yes: 39
No: 11

Question 4: If yes, did you ask for help from the union, SPSI?
Yes: 28
No: 20
No answer: 2

Question 6: If you add up your wages, wage supplements (food, Lebaran bonus), and your level of satisfaction at work, do you think you are paid fairly?
Yes: 8
No: 42

Question 9: Is the union an effective advocate for a better work environment, better wages and wage supplements, and improved working conditions?
Very helpful: 2
Helpful: 6
Useless: 30
No comment: 12

Question 10: What is the most accurate description of your experience at work?
Positive and friendly: 6
Fair – no complaints: 7
Unpleasant (pressured to work faster or disrespectful treatment from supervisors): 37

No Sweat appears to be guilty of a kind of greenwashing. In another section of the report under the rubric of “Recommendations for No Sweat” the independent auditors concluded: “PT Bata is no worse, and is probably better, than many other factories in the footwear industry in Indonesia.” Not quite what you would expect from a company that has based its entire brand and marketing strategy on its claim that it does not use the same sweatshops that big corporate shoe companies use.

Greenwashing is rampant these days across many industries. Big companies like Shell Oil, Exxon Mobil, Dow Chemical, and General Electric have engaged in multi-million-dollar greenwashing marketing campaigns. Countless smaller businesses have also given in to the temptation to boost profits with false or misleading claims. Garbled messages hamper our ability to communicate. Only the vigilance of individual consumers can prevent the “green” and “ethical” labels from becoming so debased as to be completely useless in helping us make intelligent choices.