As the world finally wakes up to the climate crisis, we consumers have a major challenge on our hands: avoiding the tsunami of corporate greenwashing heading our way. A recent report by the CMA found that 40% of sustainability-related claims by businesses “could be misleading”, and I fear this is only going to get worse.
Here are some tips to help you pick the ‘great’ from the ‘greenwash’:
- The most sustainable purchase is the one you don’t make — Marketers desperately try to persuade us that with consumption comes happiness. However, when it comes to the planet, our current consumption addiction is absolutely devastating, so it’s worth remembering that no matter how great a product’s eco-creds, it’s almost always better for the environment if you re-use, borrow or buy pre-loved instead. Apps such as OLIO, Depop and Fat Lama are great for this.
- See the wood for the trees — There’s little debate that we need to plant trees, lots of trees. But they need to be the right trees in the right places at the right time, and a monocrop of non-indigenous trees isn’t going to help anyone. I’m especially cynical about tree planting offers e.g. Buy X and we’ll plant Y trees for you, because more often than not the company’s core business operations are heavily detrimental to the planet, so a tree planting offer at point of purchase is a bit like applying a sticking plaster to a broken arm. It’s also worth knowing that it can cost as little as 10 pence to plant a tree, so those offers aren’t always as generous as they seem at first pass.
- ‘Compostable’, but where? — More and more plastic packaging is advertising itself as ‘compostable’, which should be a thing for celebration, right? Well maybe not. Unfortunately the lion’s share of compostable packing can only be composted in an industrial composter, not in your home compost. And if it ends up in the recycling bin instead, it can contaminate the recycling; and if it ends up in landfill it emits methane, a deadly greenhouse gas. So buying compostable packaging can very quickly turn good intentions into bad.
- Don’t get distracted from the bigger picture — Too many corporates are guilty of selecting one small initiative from somewhere within their vast empires, and showcasing that in the hope of persuading us that ‘green’ runs in their blood. Don’t be fooled by this — look at their core operations and see what tangible, verifiable steps they’ve taken to address how their day-to-day operations impact the planet. Sadly, reality rarely matches up to the showcase.
- Recycling just won’t cut it — Bold proclamations about plastic recycling are particularly pernicious and pervasive. Obviously it’s better for something to be made from recycled plastic rather than virgin plastic, and for it to be recyclable rather than not. But — and this is a big ‘but’ — we are not going to recycle our way out of this mess; and to imply that we can is extremely dangerous and misleading. The recent powerful video from Greenpeace demonstrates just how much plastic waste we generate in the UK alone. This is all the more shocking given that only 10% of our plastic waste is actually recycled , whilst the rest is dumped or burned. Given plastic can only be recycled once or twice, it should also be more accurately called ‘downcycling’ rather than ‘recycling’. The best policy therefore is to avoid plastic where you can, and to opt for re-usable or re-fillable every time.
- Where does it go when it dies? — Whilst there’s been some movement towards increased transparency around the provenance of materials used to create our ‘things’, for composite products there’s been a complete lack of focus around what happens at ‘end of life’. Bold claims about a product’s origins or footprint are to be welcomed, but they absolutely must be accompanied by an ecologically sound ‘end of life’ strategy too. As you’re about to hit ‘buy’ for anything new, always ask yourself “Where will this go when it dies?” And unless it can be recycled, or will rot, don’t buy it.
- All carbon is not created equal — ‘Net zero’, ‘carbon negative’, ‘carbon neutral’, ‘carbon positive’… it’s all a bit overwhelming. The key thing to look out for is whether a business has taken clear, transparent actions (ideally verified by a 3rd party) to reduce their carbon emissions. If they’re just achieving these net zero claims by purchasing carbon offsets, then I’m afraid it’s diversionary greenwashing. Yes, carbon offsets can be a helpful baby-step, but to actually tackle the climate crisis in any meaningful way we’ve got to stop carbon emissions from getting into the atmosphere in the first place. So when you hear ‘net zero’, make sure to look behind the headlines to discover the truth.
- Lies, damned lies & statistics — As you’re wading through the greenwash you’ll encounter data; lots and lots of it. When analysing the data always ask yourself these questions: Is the sample size big enough? Is it representative? Is this large % increase off a very small base? Is this an ‘apples to apples’ comparison? Are there unintended consequences that aren’t included in this data? Is this data independently verified/verifiable? And if all else fails, remember, if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is!
It’s a wild, wild west out there right now. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, the Government will convene industry leaders and mandate that they apply a transparent, consistent labelling methodology so we can finally understand the true impact of our purchasing decisions. After all, it took billions of small actions to get us into this mess in the first place; so hopefully billions of small greenwash-free actions can help get us out.