‘Sustainable’, ‘natural’, ‘green’, ‘eco-friendly’ – these terms and many are too often thrown around liberally and without a lot of care and scrutiny. And the reason is that talking ‘green’ to today’s audience of more climate-caring consumers, sells.
If a product is genuinely sustainable, earth-friendly, and ethical, then that is something to be celebrated. And as an authentic eco-brand ourselves, we fully support like-minded businesses.
The problem lies when clever sustainable marketing messages hide a darker reality, of unethical practices hiding in the supply chain, or blatant falsehoods.
This is called greenwashing and it is something that we call out and speak out against because it’s so unfair on the real green industry and on well-meaning shoppers.
Give us some examples, we hear you cry!
To become a savvier sustainable shopper, here are some green claims to look out for.
It sounds earth-positive, landfill-avoiding, and conscience-easing, doesn’t it? But unfortunately, the term ‘recyclable’ can hide a mountain of misleading information and persuade you that the item is great for the environment when it isn’t.
If something is technically recyclable, too often it may mean recyclable under very specific conditions (therefore still more likely to end up in landfill). This may include a recycling process that is polluting and energy-guzzling itself or needing to be sent to specialist recycling facilities increasing the carbon footprint.
Take 100% PET recyclable plastic bottles for example. Most plastic bottles now will indeed be made from PET. So, on the surface, great, they are recyclable. But does this actually mean they are good for the environment? Many environmentalists would argue no, as just because they CAN be recycled, it doesn’t mean they ARE recycled. And sadly, many aren’t.
It’s a similar story for many other plastic products, people will buy and dispose of them, believing them to be recyclable, when it’s not the case.
The problem is that recycling plastic is expensive. It can also be complicated depending on the plastic. Contamination due to food and drink may make it unrecyclable. The process itself is not always environmentally friendly, and there’s not enough demand for recycled plastic for it all to be reused. It also loses some of the quality during the recycling process, therefore may need some virgin plastics added back in.
So of course, recyclable is generally better than non-recyclable. But this term does not tell the whole story. So using refill tabs for your cleaning products or reusable chilly bottles for your cold drinks will always be a far ‘greener’ solution.
Bioplastics – and ‘Biodegradable’/’Compostable’/’Degradable‘
Calling something ‘biodegradable’, ‘compostable’ or ‘degradable’ can be another way of implying a product is great for the environment. But it will almost always need more examination.
If you were to buy something biodegradable, you would expect that to mean within a shortish amount of time, wouldn’t you? But some materials take hundreds of years to biodegrade, will only do so under certain environmental or manufactured industrial conditions, or even worse, break down into smaller parts that are equally if not more harmful to the environment.
Where packaging is compostable, this is very commendable, but it may depend on you having a compost bin and putting it in there yourself, rather than relying on any sorting in the general recycling.
And bioplastics, often touted as an eco-alternative to plastic, also suffer from this misunderstanding. While they may have been produced in a less environmentally damaging manner, e.g without the use of fossil fuels, their disposal presents the same challenges as standard plastics.
The problem is with all this, is that people buy in good faith, but many of the products still end up in landfill.
If you see a brand committing itself to ‘zero waste’ you are likely to consider it worthy of praise. But, like so many environmental phrases, ‘zero waste’ may mean different things.
For example, a business may commit to zero or reduced waste, but by this they mean zero or reduced waste into landfill, not zero waste per se. And then the question is, how are they achieving it? By actually producing less waste? Or by incinerating it and polluting the environment in the process of avoiding landfill? Unfortunately, the latter is sometimes the case.
And what ends up in your hands as the consumer? A business may have an excellent record on waste in manufacturing and production, but if the end product is packaged in swathes of plastic, most of it will – you guessed it – end up in landfill. So not only is the brand hoodwinking you into believing they are ethical and green, they are passing the responsibility of dealing with the waste to you, the buyer.
The fashion industry is one that has come under fire for greenwashing, to the extent that a report by the Changing Markets Foundation revealed “60% of the environmental claims on high street fashion brands websites could be classed as “unsubstantiated” and “misleading”.
This industry-wide issue is possibly due to the pressure to appear ‘green’ to consumers and continue to deliver fast fashion which is hard to justify in environmental terms. And one practice is to incorporate recycled plastics, particularly bottles, into clothing fabrics, and then call them ‘sustainable’.
The problem with this practice is that it ends the life of the plastic bottle, never to be used again, as most fabrics will not be further recycled. But also, it perpetuates fast turnover and overconsumption.
Voucher/donation schemes have also been criticised. Maybe the heart is in the right place when high street fashion companies offer to swap our unwanted clothing for vouchers to spend with them. The chances are, it’s a tactic designed to increase sales, because it encourages disposal rather than extending the life of our clothes. And in reality, most fashion brands will produce new items many times over the volume they’ll ever recycle in the same timeframe.
Environmental campaigners also point to the huge problem of microplastics in synthetic clothing – including those made from recycled clothing. Synthetics release microfibres into our oceans, and this is in no way addressed by the use of recycled plastics.
Arguably many of the steps being taken by fashion brands are more style, than substance.
Something that is often hidden behind the eco-friendly messaging on products, is the carbon footprint. In other words, a product may be natural or green, but it’s travelled halfway around the world to get to us.
How environmentally friendly is any product that’s been air or road freighted hundreds of miles before it lands in your hands?
Yes, it’s a way of keeping the costs competitive and sometimes, it’s the only way to get something manufactured. But it’s misleading to then suggest the product is positive for the earth.
Transportation is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and therefore the carbon footprint of an item is a key aspect to look at when you are judging a product for its green credentials. This is why some products will carry the Carbon Footprint logo, but buying products that are produced in the UK or locally will generally help.
Greenwashing is about marketing, marketing is about selling, and selling involves highlighting the positive features of a product. But sometimes this involves misdirection.
An example could be a drinks company making a big noise in its marketing about banning straws. Hurrah! But if on closer inspection there’s more plastic in the new fancy sippy lid, is it really a winner for the environment? Or just a winner for the business’s coffers?
This also happens when laughable but clever descriptions appear, to make you buy something based on it being green. A brilliant example is ‘Reusable tissues made from 100% cotton’ which are increasingly springing up. So that would be the good old-fashioned hanky then, that our great-grandparents would have used, before disposable tissues were even a thing.
Of course, it’s a more environmentally friendly practice. But disingenuous to suggest it’s an innovative new approach.
- A recyclable bottled cleaning spray may contain harsh chemicals and still end up in landfill.
- A washable/reusable item may use lots of resources through electricity and water and dispense micofibres into the ocean.
- The benefits of an eco-friendly product may be completely negated by its plastic packaging or carbon footprint.
If you don’t want to be greenwashed into buying what you don’t need or buying products that aren’t as green as they say they are, some good advice is to ‘think twice’.
Yes, a disposable product may say it’s recyclable or made from sustainable materials. But do you actually need it at all? Or would a reusable alternative be a better investment and avoid the need to be disposed of at all, at least for a very long time.
Yes, some products do sport green colours, pictures of nature, and lovely terminology that promises no harm to the planet. But do they back this up with formal, recognised accreditations like B-Corp, FSC, Leaping Bunny, Soil Association, Carbon Footprint to name but a few?
Yes, we all wish we could trust the green claims made by brands. But the reality is that we need to do our homework, and double check the label, research brands, and educate ourselves about what makes a product truly green or sustainable.
We have high hopes for the Green Claims Code which should reduce the practice of greenwashing.
But in the meantime, look out and think twice.