Buying green might be fashionable, but is it sustainable?
Can we buy our way to a more sustainable future?
Greenwashing works. If it didn’t, companies like Nestlé and BP wouldn’t spend millions of dollars every year trying to grab your attention with green products, sustainable investments, and flashy advertisement. A bit as if they could wash away all wrongdoing by spending enough money to convince you about how much better their product is for the environment than their competitors’. Thankfully, it means we’re headed in what appears to be the right direction for the environment, as companies clearly see a profit to be made in doing ‘the right thing’. Regretfully, it also means that we are in a phase where spending money is seen as a solution to our problems of over-consumption. While there are, and will always be, times where spending on the right product can make a difference, it’s important to remember that no matter what companies try to tell us, purchases will always have an environmental impact, no matter the eco-label, the amount of recycled material, or the type of packaging.
A promise of transparency and accountability, eco-labels have a number of issues associated with them. Aside from the fact that there are now too many labels for anyone to really know what most of them stand for, not all of them are equal in their value, or even their intentions for sustainability. On the one hand, certain labels set, arguably, very useful standards. For instance, the Energy Star certification assists customers to make more conscious choices about products with low energy consumption, and helps drive the industry forward. On the flip side, it’s sometimes hard to confirm that a label has a real-world impact when it stems from a company comparing its products to one another, as seen with many larger companies with large product ranges , including C.A.F.E. from Starbucks. Though, to be fair, it is extremely hard to reach a balance of usefulness and acceptance by the industry, short of making the labels mandatory. These labels are often expensive, requiring payment for each product to be accredited, and if the certification is too hard to obtain, then few companies will strive for it. After all, when is the last time you’ve seen a television accredited with the EU Ecolabel? Finally, putting aside all the issues associated with identifying a good label that truly sets the mark to improving sustainability, there is the issue of labels not being able to fact-check every aspect of the products they certify. For instance, palm oil has been one of the biggest source of scandals over the past few years, with companies taking advantage of ‘sustainable’ schemes to continue mismanaging local resources. If a product that comes from a single source, palm trees, can be mismanaged as such, you can imagine how many unsustainable practices are happening in sectors where the supply chains are even more complicated and hard to track.
Sold as a miracle solution to reduce our impact on the environment by expanding the lifespan of our resources, recycling comes as a mixed bag of success stories and disappointing half efforts. The largest issue with recycling, once materials make their way to the recycler, is often the lack of economic incentive to properly recycle a product. For instance, most G7 nations recycle close to 100% of their lead-acid car batteries. Sure, it is mandatory to recycle them, but it also turns out that profitability is found in the overall standardization of this ubiquitous piece of technology found in almost all of our cars today. Opposite this, the current method for recycling the lithium-ion batteries found in many electric cars has us burning large portions of the battery, including the lithium, to get the most valuable minerals out of them. Still technically recycling, but much less impressive. This issue also continues with products labelled as ‘recyclable’ being only so if there is a way to properly recycle them. Black plastic is a good example of a material that is rarely recycled, as the sorting systems often cannot detect it. Another way to see this is to look at the European directives, with similar targets to be found elsewhere in the world. The EU aims at recovering 60% of all packaging, and recycling 55–80% of this, meaning that, in a best case scenario, at least 40% of packaging will go directly to waste.
Compostability and biodegradability
Another way in which we reassure ourselves about our consumption habits is biodegradable plastic, sometimes called compostable if it meets certain criteria, to try and differentiate bioplastics that degrade better than others. Much like recyclables, they only get composted if the right stream is ready for them. If your local waste management centre accepts these materials, then you are in an ideal situation, though single-use products are often still inefficient in terms of transport and energy consumption. If, and this is much more likely, they don’t have the proper waste management streams waiting for them, then they’ll likely end up polluting nature. At this point, compostable plastics that end up in soil might be the kind that deteriorates over time, end of the story. Yet, some require very specific conditions for deteriorating, like being exposed to high temperatures or direct sunlight. Even cities with composting schemes cannot always accept these materials, as they often take longer to decompose than other products; for instance the waste management of the City of Munich launched a campaign to inform people that biodegradable bags cannot be handled by their facilities due to lengthy composting times. And, if they end up in water streams, then we are back to our old problem of plastic in the oceans, as research has shown that under these conditions degradation takes a much longer time.
Why greenwashing works
Greenwashing works because, culturally, we are expected to accumulate more things over time. As we have come to realize this model might be wrong, we now try to continue down this path by applying patchwork solutions like trying to identify more sustainable products, but this solution doesn’t solve the root problem of over-consumption. Certainly, some products are better than others, but at the end of the day, if we, as consumers, really want to have an impact, then we need to start asking questions about our consumption patterns, and stop trying to feel better by paying slightly more for a green sticker with an unknown value.