Primark chief customer officer: Greenwashing regulation could act as ‘deterrent’ on sustainability

Big brands need to be vocal about the work they do on sustainability, even if there are challenges, in order to encourage progress across the industry, says Primark chief customer officer Michelle McEttrick.

Eco sustainabilityThe increase of regulation around greenwashing risks preventing brands from progressing on sustainability issues, says Primark’s chief customer officer Michelle McEttrick.

Speaking on a panel about sustainability at Marketing Week’s Festival of Marketing last week (5 October), McEttrick warned that increased attention on the issue of greenwashing could act as “a huge deterrent” for brands to talk about what they’re doing on sustainability issues.

It comes as governments and regulatory bodies have sought to take a tougher line on greenwashing in recent years. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), for example, decided to take a stricter approach to the issue in 2021 and has banned ads from brands including Innocent and Alpro as a result.

McEttrick raised the idea of “greenhushing” and said more brands could be engaging in the practice. Greenhushing is when companies are quiet about their sustainability work due to fear of being accused of greenwashing or because they’re struggling to meet the targets they’ve put in place.

The rise of ‘greenhushing’: Why are brands going silent about their sustainability efforts?

McEttrick warned that brands could end up “retreating” from their sustainability commitments if the current trends continued.

“Not only are brands who are greenhushing losing the opportunity to connect with and widen their customer base with customers who are more ethically and sustainability driven but it all risks real progress across industry,” she said.

She noted it was the responsibility of scaled businesses to lead and be open about what they’re doing, even when things don’t go as planned.

Recent research from the Chartered Institute of Marketing found almost half (49%) of marketers are wary of working on sustainability projects in case the work is accused of greenwashing. McEttrick pointed out that there is guidance out there to help brands navigate how to make solid sustainability claims.


While greenwashing needs to be tackled, Tara Chandra, CEO and co-founder of period, bladder and sexual wellness brand Here We Flo said the very fact sustainability is something companies want to talk about is positive.

Chandra drew a comparison with big brands at Pride, who can sometimes be accused of empty allyship if they do nothing to support the LGBTQ+ community at other times of the year. While this is frustrating, the fact they want to be involved in Pride demonstrates that the celebration has entered the mainstream.

“When I was growing up, these were things that nobody talked about, nobody cared about. Now they’re out in the open, being normalised,” she said. “For climate, it’s not just about being normalised, it helps create that sense of urgency and importance.”

Growth and sustainability

Here We Flo was a brand founded with sustainability at its heart. Chandra noted that for herself and her co-founder Susan Augustin everything has to be done with sustainability in mind.

“I think in a traditional business, someone might say yes, sustainability is a growth driver because we’re going to release new products that will be sustainable and that will get customers excited, but for us, we don’t do anything that’s not sustainable and abiding by certain practices,” she said.

For Primark, the relationship between sustainability and quality can’t be ignored. The brand is “proudly” a value retailer, McEttrick said, adding tht value means quality plus price for consumers. Increasingly, ethical considerations like sustainability are “woven into” consumers’ perceptions of what quality is, she stated.

The retailer has been working hard to ensure it can meet this definition of quality. In 2021 it launched the Primark Cares strategy, which McEttrick described as being built on 15 years of experience. This strategy sees dedicated sustainability staff in head office and the retailer carry out face-to-face annual audits with all of its suppliers.

“This is all to say this is really fundamental, there will be no growth for Primark without making sure the products that we sell to customers embody quality,” she said.