How ‘greenwashing’ hurts the fight to eliminate child labour – Opinion

As the climate crisis grows ever more urgent, more and more of us are understandably focusing on living more eco-friendly lives. But, as brands make sustainability claims to try to meet consumer sentiment, rampant greenwashing is drowning out the conversation around child labour and ethical consumption. 

Consumers are increasingly looking for ways to lower their impact on the planet. Even back in 2015, Nielson found that 66% of global consumers were willing to pay more for sustainable brands – up 55% from 2014. It also found that 73% of global Millennials are willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings (Nielson).

Another report found that more than nine-in-10 Millennials would switch brands to one associated with a cause (Cone Communications).

This trend has only intensified in light of the Covid-19 outbreak, with around 75% of Millennials and Gen Z saying the pandemic has made them more sympathetic to the needs of others, that they’ll take action to positively impact their communities – but they won’t hesitate to penalize companies whose stated and practiced values conflict with their own (Deloitte).

Sustainability sells and products making environmental claims – such as being ‘ethically sourced’ or produced with renewable energy – are seeing significantly greater sales growth than their competitors (Nielson).

So it makes perfect sense for brands to market themselves as environmentally friendly, and rather than investing a lot of time and money into implementing truly sustainable business practices, many companies opt for the easiest option: Greenwashing. 

Greenwashing encompasses a whole range of tactics companies employ when trying to appear more eco-conscious. 

Sometimes it’s making claims about going carbon neutral without ever supplying concrete evidence. Sometimes it’s introducing an alternative ‘eco-friendly’ line, while still mostly selling products that are damaging to the environment. And sometimes it’s literally just adding some nature imagery and buzzwords about ‘being better’ to their website.

One recent high profile example would be Amazon’s empty gesture of renaming Seattle’s KeyArena to the ‘Climate Pledge Arena’, in spite of the company’s multiple contracts with the oil and gas industry, as well as its use of wasteful packaging and high greenhouse emissions – just to name a few.

Ultimately, greenwashing is a distraction. An attempt to divert attention away from a brand’s less than ethical exploits. It doesn’t just distract from a poor environmental track record, but also other areas where they want to avoid scrutiny, such as their use of child labour. 

Child labour is rife across practically every industry. It is entrenched in numerous areas of the supply chain, including raw material production and processing, and so it’s rare to find a company that is not in some way reliant on child workers.

Unsurprisingly, a huge number of major companies, such as Nestle, H&M, Apple and Microsoft, have each faced multiple accusations of using child labour in their supply chains.

And while they may offer a press release with apologies and platitudes about working to ‘be better’ – pulled right from the greenwashing playbook – soon the scandal is swept under the rug and it’s business as usual. 

What’s more, as eco-consciousness and sustainability take precedence in conversations about ethical living, brands can capitalise on this trend and present themselves as the ‘good guys’ based on the pretense of caring about the environment. All the while they can continue to ignore the issue of social sustainability and keep on using unethical business practices with little worry about being held accountable. 

Both the climate crisis and child labour are extremely complex issues, and neither has a simple solution. But that shouldn’t mean that we pit them against each other or have to take an ‘either/or’ approach to tackling them. 

In fact, the two are inextricably linked. Climate change is a driving factor leading to increased child labour. And the use of child labour – as well as being unethical in itself – contributes to the cycle of overconsumption that harms the planet by giving companies a way of keeping production costs as low as possible and maximising profits.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals highlight how sustainability is never just about the environment. The 17 goals are integrated, recognising that action in one area will affect outcomes in others, and that development must balance environmental, economic and social sustainability.

Although the planet is often framed as the priority, a genuinely sustainable world won’t ever be achieved if we neglect the social and economic pillars of sustainability. 

We need to hold companies to account, expect more of them and not settle for empty promises or a veneer of being ‘ethical’. Relying on child labour is no more sustainable than being reliant on single use plastics or fossil fuels. 

Just like how we shouldn’t accept companies exploiting the environment for the sake of profits, we can’t accept them exploiting children and depriving them of a childhood either. 

Read more about how you can help with child labour here: