By Lena Milton
A growing number of consumers worldwide are using their buying power to push industries into sustainability. With them, companies are changing their business operations to accommodate their sustainability efforts.
However, many brands use greenwashing tactics to make their products seem more sustainable than they really are. As consumers, it’s important to be able to distinguish between brands that use false sustainability claims and ones that actively work to benefit the environment and tell their sustainability story transparently. This article will walk you through how to make smart, sustainable purchasing decisions and avoid being sucked in by greenwashing.
The Problem with Greenwashing
It’s easy to get lost in the surge of brands that promote environmental consciousness. With brands advertising their use of recycled plastics, natural materials, and conservation efforts, it can be overwhelming to determine which are truly doing great work to reduce their emissions and environmental impact and which are making half-hearted attempts at environmentalism for the sake of profits and publicity.
Greenwashing has become a broadly-used marketing strategy, especially as more consumers shift their buying practices to favor sustainability and ethical consumerism. In 2021, a European Commission study found that 42% of eco-friendly marketing claims were exaggerated, misleading, or blatantly false. Additionally, 59% of the cases studied lacked substantial evidence to support their eco-friendly claims.
Unfortunately, greenwashing isn’t going away, but as consumers, we can educate ourselves to determine which brands are genuinely doing their best to become more sustainable and which are not.
A major aspect of a product’s sustainability is where it comes from and how it’s made. This is seen prominently in the manufacturing industry, where items are mass-produced in developing nations with few social and environmental regulations. Brands can advertise their use of recycled materials or sustainably-harvested resources, but products that are refined and manufactured in factories that improperly dispose of waste, release hazardous chemicals into the air, and exploit workers cannot be considered “sustainable.”
When looking for the most sustainable products, be aware of vague wording. Labels such as “100% sustainable” or “conscious” and “clean” are meaningless. Companies with honest sustainability efforts will be able to provide specifics on their product supply chain and how sustainability efforts affected their processes, such as water use or energy use. Companies that manufacture in developing nations aren’t inherently problematic, but they should be able to confirm that their factories receive regular check-ins to ensure ethical and environmental practices are being followed.
Many companies, especially those in the fashion industry, utilize third-party certifications to ensure environmental and social responsibility are being adequately accounted for. Prevalent certifications include:
- Cradle to Cradle – A global standard for zero waste and circular economics-based products
- Higg Index – A standard developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to promote sustainable and ethical clothing brands
- Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) – An international standard developed to ensure environmental and social responsibility in the fashion industry
It’s notoriously difficult for fast-fashion brands to make products with a low environmental and social impact, but taking advantage of certifications and audits can drastically improve environmental efforts throughout supply chains. Those that do will typically display certification details on their packaging or their websites.
Similarly, brands that cultivate their products through sustainable means should be able to provide appropriate details. Unsustainable farming practices create worldwide environmental problems and impact more than our food. Look for brands, both in foods and other products, that use sustainable farming practices. This can include organic certifications that limit the use of synthetic chemicals, or farming practices that implement the use of regenerative agriculture for net positive environmental impacts. A growing number of companies, including Patagonia, have committed to using regenerative agricultural practices. Even LEGO, which now makes the majority of its plastic bricks out of sugarcane-based bioplastic, has adopted sustainable agricultural practices in its production methods.
While sustainable sourcing isn’t a perfect, catch-all solution to sustainability, it helps put brands on the right track by starting at the root of production.
Green from Start to Finish
In addition to green sourcing, the products we buy should also be able to be disposed of safely and sustainably. Plastic products are an obviously unsustainable material, especially single-use plastics that can’t be recycled, and even recycled plastics offer an imperfect solution. While using recycled material is generally a good way to avoid new plastics going into production, it doesn’t stop non-degradable materials from entering landfills—or worse, oceans. It takes energy and water to recycle plastic, and many products advertised as made from recycled plastic are only a portion recycled, the rest is virgin plastic.
Unfortunately, only about 8.7% of plastics are recycled in the US, and the rest is sent to landfills. For products like furniture, building materials, and other items that are made to last long-term, recycled plastics can be a great way to reuse material. However, items with shorter lifespans, including clothes, food containers, and packaging, are not a great way to reuse plastic, as those easily break down into microplastics and quickly return to landfills.
Alternatively, look for brands that do more than just minimize their impacts and instead actively try to improve the environment and talk about how they are doing so in a transparent manner. A growing number of brands, including IKEA and Adidas, are taking advantage of circular economic practices, where old products can be returned to be refurbished and recycled. This significantly reduces the need for virgin materials and the amount of waste going to landfills.
In the global market, there is no way to be completely sustainable, nor is there a single right way to support sustainability. By using our purchasing power to promote brands that actively improve their environmental and social impacts, we can help move the global market into a more sustainable future.
About the Author
Lena Milton is a freelance writer covering sustainability, health and environmental science. She writes to help consumers understand the environmental and ethical challenges in everyday life so we can find viable solutions for both.