Natural doesn’t mean 100% eco-friendly, bamboo and organic cotton still use up resources like water and electricity, and a lot of vegan materials are made from synthetic, petroleum derived fabrics. With so many conflicting messages out there, how can we wise up to be truly environmentally conscious consumers?
Words by Ella Liascos
If you landed on this article, you’re probably part of the growing number of people making an effort to buy sustainable products.
Of course, as demand for greener products increases, it’s becoming tempting for some companies to set themselves apart with green messaging without actually doing the grunt work to truly earn the tagline.
‘Greenwashing’ as it’s called, is everywhere and found in phrases like “save the planet when you buy our products” or “our packaging is recyclable.” These common claims don’t always share the whole picture, or worse, hide a lazy or uneducated attempt at sustainability.
The reason greenwashing is so prevalent is because achieving sustainability is hard. It means extensive research and development, time and money spent changing long-established systems, and sometimes, smaller margins. Most of the time, a truly sustainable company has made sacrifices to achieve that status and did so with the greater good in mind, not just their bottom line.
The loophole that allows greenwashing to exist is that the term ‘sustainable’ has no legal meaning, so companies are free to make claims without the need to back them up with evidence. Companies that greenwash often do so on the assumption that most people are too busy to do some digging to check if their claims are correct.
Unless you’ve got the time to research extensively, it can be tough to read through a company’s claims to see whether or not they’re quite as ‘sustainable’ as they say. That’s why we’re busting the four most common greenwashing messages, so you’ll know how to spot them in future. Starting with:
1. “Our packaging is recyclable.”
This one’s a killer because many of the companies that say this package their products in newly produced ‘virgin’ plastic and claim that it’s sustainable. In reality they’re adding to the annual quota of newly made plastics, not mentioning that only 9% of plastic makes it through recycling facilities worldwide. So even if you do recycle it, there’s a dismal 9% chance it won’t end up in landfill.
What to look for instead:
If you see “post consumer plastic,” “made from recycled plastic” or “plastic-free” written on a package, they’re all positive signs that the company has made a solid effort to be more sustainable. When opting for a sustainably packaged product, look for products made from post consumer plastic or recycled plastic. Kevin Murphy is a great example of this. His self-titled company took a real financial hit to package his hair products in recycled ocean plastics.
One downside to post-consumer plastic packaging is that it’s still single-use — so when the product runs out, it’ll end up in the recycle bin again with the same 9% recycle rate. This is why it’s even better to look for companies offering refillable options, packaging materials with a higher recycle rate, or best of all, no packaging at all. Products like shampoo bars, or products packaged in aluminium or glass are great examples. 75% of all aluminium ever created is still in use today, that’s a much higher recycle rate, making it much more appropriate packaging for single use products.
2. “Carbon offsets”
This is a slightly more nuanced issue bearing several angles. Carbon offsets are wonderful, but not if the company is only using it to relieve the guilt of releasing a tonne of carbon into the atmosphere. Airlines offer the option to offset your individual carbon footprint by planting a tree to soak up the equivalent amount of carbon of your plane trip. If you have to catch a flight, offsetting carbon is definitely better than not offsetting carbon. However, reducing plane travel and keeping carbon in the ground is the most sustainable option.
Why carbon offsets aren’t all they seem:
“You can’t offset geological carbon — i.e. fossil fuels — with biological carbon,” says Professor Will Steffen from the ANU’s Climate Change Institute. Geological carbon like coal for example, is stored in the ground. Biological carbon is stored in trees or kelp. The reason you can’t offset coal with trees is because of their cycle length. The carbon stored in a tree can only stay locked inside for a couple of decades or a couple of hundred years before the tree dies and the carbon is released back into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, geological carbon can be stored for millennia, but generating it also takes millennia.
What to look for instead:
Adding carbon credits to your cart is still great for the environment if you’re given the option, but not if you’re purchasing from a business with an enormous footprint. Look for companies that are taking active steps to reduce their carbon footprint, through changes to material sourcing, manufacturing and delivery options.
3. “Our packaging is compostable.”
Packaging that says ‘compostable’ should really come with an asterisk and some fine print. This is because not all compostable products are made equal. There’s two types of composting. The needy kind with the asterisk is called ‘compostable’ and the low maintenance kind is termed ‘home compostable.’ Home compostable means you can throw it away with your orange peel without the need for any particular environment to degrade in under 180 days. Meanwhile compostable packaging like PLA can only be composted commercially at high temperatures. It takes such a long time to decompose in standard landfills that many environmentalists don’t believe it deserves the title ‘biodegradable.’
What to do instead:
Develop the habit of bringing your own cup or lunch box if you’re ordering takeaway, and think of the plastic containers with the green bands around them as a last resort. If you’re wrapping a school lunch, opt for beeswax wraps or companies like Great Wrap for example, who make a home compostable stretch wrap that decomposes in under 180 days, leaving zero toxins behind.
4. “Eco-friendly products. Shop with us, save the planet.”
With greenwashing being so prevalent, it’s best not to take a company’s word for it. If a company claims they’re sustainable without statistics or specifics stated anywhere on their website, it’s likely there’s some greenwashing going on. The word ‘sustainability’ is inherently vague as it doesn’t suggest ‘how’ sustainable something has to be before it is considered genuinely sustainable. They might use post-consumer packaging that warrants the use of the term ‘sustainable,’ while the rest of their practices might be far from it.
For this reason, sustainability should be thought of on a spectrum from completely unsustainable, to carbon negative. A sign of a company making a real effort to be sustainable is one that has already made sincere efforts, like eliminating virgin plastics and reducing their carbon footprint, and additionally have a list of targets they’re aiming to hit. They value transparency over perfection. Transparency shows an honest, measured and educated attempt at lessening their environmental footprint one step at a time.
What to look for:
Look beneath the claim. Good On You is a great resource that does the research for you and rates brands based on how sustainable they truly are, not how much they say they are.
If you can’t find the company on Good On You, search for statistics and evidence of a company’s claims before taking their word for it.