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ASK EARTHA: Beware of Greenwashing

 In Ask Eartha

Dear Eartha, I recently ordered laundry detergent sheets to reduce my plastic consumption, but the items arrived in a giant plastic envelope and the sheets were inside yet another plastic bag. It’s frustrating that a product claiming to be eco-friendly and plastic-free was not. What can I do?

Good-for-the-planet products seem to be everywhere. On one hand, this is a really, really great thing. Consumer support for socially responsible, environmentally conscious goods is driving companies to find new ways to produce the things we need. Yet, sometimes these efforts fall short.

Greenwashing is a term used when companies share misleading information about how their products or business practices are environmentally friendly. We’ve all seen greenwashing in its simplest form with language such as “clean”, “earth-friendly”, “all-natural”, “green” etc. There is little to no regulation on these claims, leaving the sorting-through to the discerning customer.

In the case of the laundry sheets, which are paper-thin, dissolvable sheets meant to replace liquid or powder detergents, the claim of eco-friendly and plastic-free was only true to the sheets themselves, not the packaging or the shipping. Once you become aware of these marketing tactics, it’s surprising just how rampant greenwashing has become.

The Sell
One common culprit is the “100% compostable” claim on disposable plates and silverware. This is problematic given that communities often have vastly different systems of composting processes – if they compost at all. For example, Kauai Coffee proclaims their coffee pods are 100% compostable while the fine print concedes this can only be done in specific “industrial facilities”. Here in Summit County, our current composting process and arid mountain climate cannot handle the wide variety of “compostable” paper and plastics materials.

It’s a similar case for plastic packaging waving the “100% recyclable” flag. Hefty recently marketed one of their plastic bags as a recycling bag. Not only are the bags themselves unacceptable in most recycling programs, but valuable items such as cans and plastic bottles are considered unrecyclable when bagged in plastic. Fortunately, Hefty was called out for its false claim. These “compostable” and “recyclable” messages put the onus of determining a product’s “greenness” on the consumer rather than the company that produced it. Just because the material has a recycling symbol on it, does not mean it’s accepted locally or has a viable market to become another product.

Large corporations can be the biggest greenwashing offenders by making public environmental gestures that don’t reflect reality. In 2019, Amazon signed a climate pledge to dramatically reduce carbon emissions which totaled 44.4 million tons in 2018. The pledge captured headlines but lacked accountability and transformation of core businesses practices, covering only Amazon’s own operations, not the global supply chain that makes up 75% of its emissions.

Sometimes greenwashing is outright deception. In 2015, Volkswagen admitted to using devices that gave false emissions readings while marketing lower-emissions vehicles. These are just a few of countless examples. Sadly, greenwashing practices hinder the critical need to significantly cut carbon emissions from the things we produce.

The Buy
As environmentally conscious consumers, we are easy targets. Greenwashing plays to our desire to buy things that aren’t harmful to the environment. Misleading marketing wants to make us feel better about our purchases and create a false sense of control over a product’s disposal.

So, what can you do? No matter how planet-saving they seem, avoid buying disposable products when possible. Take stock of the things you buy and seek out less wasteful options. For items you need for convenience, don’t let the marketing language or splashy green packaging sway you. Consider the product’s lifecycle, including production, transportation, and reusability. Research the claims on your favorite products and inquire about shipping and packaging methods before you buy. Some sustainable products are sold by third-party companies that may not follow the same ethos. Refresh your knowledge of the meanings of environmental labels. And finally, when you see greenwashing, it’s important to admonish the company to do better. Your voice will join others in a collective push for more sustainable practices.

Our shopping carts are being filled with empty promises of “eco-friendly”, feel-good products. As we struggle to change our consumer culture to buy less and eliminate single-use items, we must hold ourselves and companies accountable so that our well-intentioned efforts don’t do more harm than good.

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