By Julia B. Grinberg
The sustainable product market is a $150 billion business with more room to grow. As conscious consumers, we’re responsible for deciding where we shop and who we invest in. Choosing unwisely could counteract the movement as a whole, uplifting companies that fail to make an environmental commitment rather than those actively working to build a sustainable brand. Companies who promise more environmental benefit than they deliver are guilty of a process called Greenwashing. While it’s not always intentional, greenwashing can happen from a lack of information, oversight, open communication, or any combination of the three. We’re often given a snapshot of a brand’s sustainability efforts, controlled by the information they choose to share and how they present it. For the whole picture, we’ll need to take a deeper dive into these common claims and learn how to question the tricks to find the truths.
TRICK: There is a clear criteria for a brand to call itself “sustainable.”
TRUTH: For as often as we see the word sustainability, it surprisingly has no universal definition or guidelines. The danger of having a term so broadly recognized to blanket all environmental efforts is that there’s no real standard to adhere to. Marketing strategies that select popular language with no cemented meaning are sneaking through a loophole that allows presentation without substance. We can’t take these buzzwords at face value and stop there. The next step is to determine our own definition of sustainability based on the genuine protection of natural resources, and support a brand that meets our qualifications. We have the power to set the standard.
TRICK: A single initiative is good enough to be green.
TRUTH: While it’s true that every little bit helps when making strides towards a more environmentally minded business, suggesting that a product is green based on a single attribute is willfully omitting information that could be helpful to sustainable shoppers. Companies can promote their use of recycled materials without proper attention to how their manufacturing processes contribute to harmful emissions and climate change. It’s important that a brand exhibit a wider commitment to sustainability, rather than focusing on a singular issue. The key here is to ask questions. Reclaim your right as a consumer to request additional context to their claims.
- How much recycled content does the product contain?
- Will it break down safely in a landfill?
- Does the product use water and energy efficiently?
- Do you use any hazardous chemicals in your production?
- How is your product packaged and shipped? Have you considered carbon-offset shipping methods?
TRICK: New materials always fix old problems.
TRUTH: One of the greatest enemies to our oceans and a huge contributor to carbon emissions is single-use plastic. Innovation in the industry has led to the creation of bioplastics, which aim to combat those issues as a biodegradable alternative. However, since these bioplastics require the presence of oxygen and sunlight to break down - not something you usually find in a landfill - they can run the same risks as normal plastics. New materials that make bold claims require us to do our research. Facts and figures may be thrown around that seemingly only a scientist can decipher, but we have all the ammunition that we need at our fingertips to be well-informed. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) provides helpful information on protecting consumers from misleading marketing.
TRICK: Chemical-free and organic are all you need to know.
TRUTH: Claims of chemical-free products rely on the benefits of being deceptive. Almost nothing is chemical-free, not even water. Though when we see this printed across the label of a product, we assume it has a higher position on the sustainability ranking. At the end of the day, this phrase and its variants are one of the most misleading themes of eco-messaging, as they have no real meaning. For organic farming, companies have a tendency to play up the benefits, while ignoring the issues. Although organic farming eliminates the need for pesticides, it does lead to a higher impact on the local environment, and requires far more land than conventional farming. The important takeaway here is to immerse ourselves in the complexities of the issues, instead of following a vague label.
TRICK: Ethical practices are implied with sustainability.
TRUTH: Ethical and sustainable practices always seem to go hand-in-hand, but it’s not as simple as assuming that a company is ethically conscious just because they are environmentally conscious. Fair compensation, safe working conditions, and preservation of local communities are pillars of ethical manufacturing practices, but how do we know when a company is adhering to the ethical code? One thing we can do is demand transparency. Open up the lines of communication between the consumers and the makers of our favorite products. Most will be happy to share their ethical efforts. If there’s still any uncertainty, we’re able to seek out a company’s fair trade certifications. Secrecy or vagueness surrounding their processes should raise a red flag, but keeping a company honest is a good way to keep them ethical.
TRICK: The consumers only responsibility is to purchase the right products.
TRUTH: Take recycled packaging for example, which is only eco-friendly if we then recycle it properly. Longevity in products relies on our personal care and maintenance. We play an active role in how sustainable an item is after it leaves the shelves. When we act on our intentions, and put in the work to uncover the facts, we’re contributing more than just money. We have the ability to highlight the brands that showcase the best of sustainable innovation. Perfection is unattainable, but the pursuit towards progress should always be active and rewarded.