The Plague of Performative Sustainability


Green, ethical, environmentally friendly—the list of buzzwords encouraging sustainable living is ever growing. A universal consciousness of the world we live in has spread across Western society. More and more people have become mindful of their environmental impact. Brands and large global companies are attempting to leverage this consciousness into revenue through marketing themselves as ‘green’. While some organisations are backing up their marketing campaigns with sustainable actions, many others seem interested in performative sustainability alone—empty promises and hollow gestures. 

The concept of sustainability is considered to be composed of three pillars: economic, environmental, and social—more informally known as profits, planet, and people. In a corporate led globalising world, is it any surprise that profits stand strong at the top of that list? Human life in an increasingly globalised world is not looked after and is sacrificed again and again in the name of profit. Rather than universally accepting that environmental impact takes precedent, a more holistic approach should be taken in order to minimise damage. 

The concept of greenwashing, disinformation disseminated by an organisation in order to present an environmentally responsible public image, has exploded onto our cultural landscape. One example is fashion brand Uniqlo. Uniqlo has recently enlisted Doraemon, a fictional cat, as its Global Sustainability Ambassador. Doraemon activates ‘sustainability mode’ by turning green. Perhaps the perfect tool for further distraction from the actual impact had by the brand on the planet and its people. The $9.2 billion brand has been embroiled in an ongoing worker’s rights case for years, leaving thousands of garment workers in Indonesia fighting for $5.5 million worth of severance pay. While arguably creating further awareness of the world’s environmental issues, Uniqlo here fails to comply with all three pillars of sustainability. Profit once again takes precedence.

 Part of the challenge surrounding greenwashing is the consumer desire to feel good about their purchases; it becomes easier to simply not question what a company really means by their on-brand environmental claims. Corporations have been able to capitalise on this growing demand for environmentally responsible products whilst sweeping under the carpet any less desirable statistics. In fact, it is estimated that only 2% of the people that make your clothes earn a living wage. With cheap prices acting as a seductive pull factor for all of us, sustainability’s pillar of ‘people’ is routinely left behind.

Equally concerning, the fashion industry is one of the largest polluters globally. Toxic chemicals, fertilisers, pesticides, and fabric treatments poison the air, water, and soil—which has had a devastating impact on our delicate ecosystems. In a competitive and globalised world which is obsessed with increasing profit margins, is it still possible to prioritize planet and people over profit? 

Possibly not. The profit pull factor, whether we like it or not, is here to stay. But the power of consumers should not be underestimated. They should use their purchasing power to sway the decisions made by businesses. This will help to ensure that the profit, planet, and people pillars of sustainability are inextricably linked. 

Sustainability means so much more than preserving the natural world we have been given. The attempt by large corporations to blindfold consumers via greenwashing is far too little and far too late. Lawrence Summers, the former World Bank’s chief economist has stated that “investment in girls’ education may well be the highest return available in the developing world”. 80% of the world’s underpaid textile workers are women and calls to enforce their right to an education and fair living wages are often left unanswered. 

The prevalence of globalisation has encouraged the spread of western neo-liberal economic policies; the result of this is a world in which cheap international trade takes precedence over local lives and their right to safety and fair wages. Here, however, if the promise of profit can be used to incentivise the fulfilment of basic human rights, that would make a world of difference to the sustainability project. One statement from an economist is not going to change the systemic issues ingrained within global society, but greater awareness of these financial benefits might act as motivation.

 Consumers are not an inactive by-product resulting from the existence of large corporations. A universal realisation of our purchasing power would help ensure the voice of the many is heard by those who shape the society in which we live. To help achieve this, communication and awareness about sustainable action is undeniably important. However, without the communicative engagement of major corporations, improvements in the arena of sustainability are likely to be significantly slower. This unfortunate link means that big brands can both hinder and inspire consumers when it comes to purchasing sustainably. Greenwashing, it seems then, must be considered as better than nothing at all. Although, as this advertising trend continues, it is increasingly important that consumers are made aware of the pitfalls of automatically believing ‘green’ marketing campaigns. Our sustainable world cannot be created without a real consideration of those who live on it.

Words by Eloise Cowen

This article was published as part of The Indiependent‘s May 2021 magazine edition.

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