How can we fight against language pollution?
How can we wade through the buzzwords of environmental crisis and distinguish the companies and corporations committed to real change?
‘When fabulousness meets sustainability’
In April this year, H&M launched their ninth ‘Conscious Collection’. Draped in floaty dresses, models ran through mountains and meadows, climbing trees and dancing by fires, placing yellow flowers in their wind-struck hair. Wrapping up thirty seconds of sunset-tinged footage, a woman twirls through a wheat-field; a whimsical voice-over reads, ‘because on this planet of ours, a little love won’t hurt’.
The gloriously vague dream of a sustainable future hummed through the campaign. Photos of floral blouses and skirts floated through Instagram captioned ‘when fabulousness meet sustainability’, whilst promo videos featured groups of giggling women, angelically prophesying a time in which ‘it’s going to be a given to have organic cotton in a dress’.
‘From the beginning, our role has been to democratise fashion,’ Anna Gedda, Head of Sustainability H&M Group reports, ‘today, that means making it sustainable: it’s the only way we’ll keep making great fashion and design available today, tomorrow and for generations to come.’
Despite the fresh-faced promises of H&M’s anthropic future, the absence of detailed explanation brought them under attack. The company was accused of greenwashing, plastering their campaign with the buzzwords of the environmental anxiety, without genuine commitment to the cause.
Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing
The problem was predominantly one of language. ‘Our opinion is that H&M is not being clear or specific enough in explaining how the clothes in the Conscious collection and their Conscious shop are more ‘sustainable’ than other products they sell,’ says Bente Øverli, deputy director general at Norway’s Consumer Authority.
‘Since H&M is not giving the consumer precise information about why these clothes are labelled Conscious, we conclude that consumers are being given the impression that these products are more ‘sustainable’ than they actually are.’
Marcus Fairs, editor-in-chief of Dezeen, sees this as a pressing point of resistance to environmental progress. He explains that he is constantly sent press releases peppered with words like ‘sustainable’, ‘organic’ and ‘renewable’ with little thought as to what these words actually mean – ‘one designer told me she had managed to source renewable polypropylene, which is an impossibility, since polypropylene is derived from non-renewable fossil fuels’.
This raises the issue of language pollution: with such abundant use of inaccurate terms, even mindful consumers cannot navigate the language of sustainability and make informed choices about what they are buying.
The contamination of plastic words
This is not a new phenomenon. In 1995, German Linguistic, Uwe Pörksen devised the term ‘plastic words’ to describe the influx and overuse of scientific sounding into everyday speech. Removed from their original context, Pörksen views these words as ‘amorphous’ – malleable and indeterminate – able to be slotted into a range of contexts without properly communicating anything.
The issue is that these words signify different things to different people, as articulated by award-winning environmental journalist, Andrew Nikiforuk:
Sustainable for what? Over next year? Over 10 years? Over a millennium? On a local basis, on a planetary basis? I mean, there are so many time and space dimensions to it you cannot define what is sustainable. If somebody is boasting that what they are doing is sustainable, it’s a total laugh.
The overuse of these malleable words can become sinister, particularly in the hands of corporations. Imbuing speech with a sense of authority without needing definition or detailed argument, corporations perpetuate the harmful stereotypes they are trying to escape.
‘The saddest thing is that many companies do it by accident,’ says Dr. Leyla Acaroglu, award winning designer, UNEP Champion of the Earth, social scientist and entrepreneur, explains, ‘they don’t have the expertise to know what is truly environmentally beneficial, and what is not.’
If the companies themselves are not certain about what the words they are using actually mean, how are we supposed to make sense of what they mean?
Overcoming Language Pollution
In 1946, George Orwell wrote in an essay, ‘Politics and the English Language, that the degradation of language had turned people into machines – ‘the appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.’
Throughout his essay, Orwell emphasises the fact that language is not just a reflection of our reality, but also a producer of it. He calls out the way society has fallen into the lazy position of assuming that language is a ‘natural growth’ of culture, rather than ‘an instrument which we shape for our own purposes’.
‘We must analyze the language we use’, says Pörksen, ‘words… should be questioned constantly; but out of complacency, fear, or plain stupidity we allow them, again and again, to lead us.’
Fortunately, H&M took a step back. A spokesman for the brand thanked the Norwegian Consumer Authority for ‘shin[ing] a light on marketing of sustainable alternatives’, promising to think carefully about how to ‘become even better at communicating’ in order to ‘provide correct and clear information to customers’.
The wishy-washy spring promises of sustainability were unpacked in H&M’s magazine. An article in September explored the damaging effects of single-use packaging, from production to disposal, whilst a piece in October was titled ‘How Sustainable is Sustainable Cotton’, interrogating the environmental and social impacts of different types of cotton.
Besides these efforts, H&M still received complaints about the environmental impact of transport and packaging after trialling a clothing rental initiative in October. Yet in being critical about the language they are using, H&M have taken the first steps in communicating their strategy to their consumers, but more importantly, understanding it themselves. Reflecting on their own terminology, the company can no longer slap a buzzword on to a single collection, but must genuinely interrogate the complexed interrelatedness of issues the term encompasses.
If we want to rise up against the climate crisis, we must begin by looking at the language through which it is publicly understood. We must be critical about the words we use, treating them with suspicion, skepticism and a continual ambition for precision.