Sustainability. Are QR codes another way of Greenwashing?

Yes, the fashion industry has come up with another way to look sustainable: QR codes, the now common black and white puzzled squares that can be scanned with any smartphone camera and connect us to any virtual space. Ads use them to reach out to consumers. Now it is even called revolutionary, as fashion brands are using them to prove their eco-friendliness. Just by scanning a QR code, a website can pop-up and tell you how a brand’s products are made and what footprint their materials are leaving behind. Sounds amazing. But can we really trust them?

To try answering these questions, Istituto Marangoni Firenze student Jasmin Kusumaningsih opens a speculative investigation into this new trend. 


Text and illustrations by Jasmin Kusumaningsih.

Amidst the Covid pandemic, QR codes are rising in popularity for contactless information sharing; it originated in Japan1 as an upgraded version of bar codes, increasing their efficiency. One could easily find a few brands that use them; most of them even have their own recognisable QR codes for three reasons: advertisement campaigns (to access their online stores), proof of authenticity, and, most importantly for our research, sustainability.
Proving sustainability through QR codes is supposedly great, but how much can we be sure that it isn’t used falsely, just for the sake of marketing? Or for corporate greenwashing, a popular term used from the 1960s to address false claims about environmental sustainability. If this is the case, this action is highly unethical. It goes against the morals of loyal consumers who buy products from brands they believe are doing environmental good.
Curious about these new sustainability trends, more fashion brands are being surveyed from a customer’s perspective.
The earliest brand that used this QR technology was Levi’s in 20162, a company that has already demonstrated a clear interest in the environmental impact of the fashion industry, as we surveyed in a previous article. Many other brands soon followed with the purpose of promoting product transparency. 
Yet, it is odd that some of them are using QR codes only, without a certified green label on their products or websites. Since the information provided by QR codes can be less easily verified, their claims became intangible. On the other hand, the information provided by companies with certified green labels is harder to falsify because of the process required to get certified by a third party. It traces how much a brand does to be sustainable in a statistical, verifiable way.

© Jasmin Kusumaningsih, 2021

To avoid common greenwashing trickery, consumers may need to watch out for false green labels and look for official green monitoring or collaborations. These include GOTS (The Global Organic Textile Standard), Fairtrade Foundation, FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), and others3. These organisations are usually nonprofit and easily available to companies. They track their products from resources to production processes, through to whether they are wasteful or not after reaching consumers. So, if a brand is as sustainable as they originally declared, certifications should not be so hard to obtain.
Among the few brands that claimed to use QR codes at their flagship stores in Florence during our research4, only two of them were actively using them.
The first one stated that these product lines are limited and need to be pre-ordered. However, to understand how this method works, consumers should be able to look into a product’s green passport before buying. The fact that consumers need to buy before being able to learn more about a product’s journey is not logical in terms of sustainability: these items need to be pre-ordered, meaning that the brand will not reduce the amount of waste created for their newest collections.

© Jasmin Kusumaningsih, 2021

The second brand had a different set of issues. This time, they already had their QR-coded products in store, with a green QR code sticker on each piece of their sustainable collection. However, when the codes were scanned, the URL page was nonexistent and redirected users to their brand homepage for more online shopping. This would raise suspicion, as we couldn’t know whether it was done on purpose or was just an honest mistake.
At the end of our research, no working QR code was found that could prove a brand’s commitment to sustainability. Even if it is impossible to draw any general conclusions from the few stores surveyed, we did learn that is important to be aware of how we can avoid greenwashing by doing our own part. First, we need to be able to have a product’s data before buying for transparency. Second, we should try and scan the QR codes to make sure they work. Lastly, check whether the brand has a green certification. Although not all forms of green labels can be trusted, it is still a great concept to develop and apply to future digital tools by sustainable fashion brands. Hopefully there will come a time when suspicion will not be necessary, but that time is not now.

Jasmin Kusumaningsih is an undergraduate student in Fashion Design & Accessories at Istituto Marangoni Firenze.

1. The Japan Times (2021) Japan-Invented QR Code Wins Award for Global Impact in Electronics. Online. [Accessed 23 November 2021].
2. Wilson, G. (2021) QR Technology: The Bridge to a Sustainable Fashion Industry. Online  [Accessed 9 November 2021]. 
3. Barelli, B. (2021) Eco Labels in Fashion: Three Certifications to Know. Online [Accessed 10 November 2021].
4. The research was done during the months of October and November 2021 in Florence.

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