It’ll All Come Out in the (Green) Wash

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Through the Sense and Sustainability column, Jess McDonald sheds some light on the complexities of climate change and what it means for the world around us. From lessons on sustainable living to informative insights on emissions and renewable energy, she’ll keep us all up to date on this increasingly hot topic.

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The likelihood is that if you’re reading this, you care at least a little bit about environmental issues. Maybe it’s something you’ve been concerned about for a long time, or maybe you recently watched a David Attenborough documentary and it struck you that we have to do something to save our planet—from ourselves. And so, at some point in time, I can guarantee you’ve bought something to aid your journey towards more sustainable living. This might have been metal straws, ethical clothing, vegan beauty products, the list goes on. But amongst the products genuinely designed to combat environmental issues, there are frauds, and once you peel back the layer of green you find something that is anything but. 

The practice of using the goals of the environmental movement to sell products that do not actually benefit the cause is called ‘greenwashing.’ Its history stretches back to the 1970s, when environmentalism first gained popularity, but with climate change more prominent now than ever it has taken on new forms. For many large companies and corporations, environmentalism is just another new trend to capitalise on, and while it may seem that their limited progressive actions are a step in the right action, this ‘greenwashing’ poses a massive risk to the overall cause.

Who ‘Greenwashes’?

‘Greenwashing’ is so wide-spread across the market that it would be impossible to list all of the perpetrators. Often the culprits appear overnight as seemingly new brands, decorated with the hopeful buzzwords of ‘natural,’ ‘biodegradable,’ ‘vegan,’ or ‘cruelty-free.’ Yet looming in the shadows behind these fluffy phrases can be big corporations—for instance Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Nestle—whose overall ethos does not put the environment above profit. One example that I myself fell for is Ecover. Ecover pitches a more ‘ecological’ solution to household cleaning, using ‘natural’ formulas that supposedly pose less risk to aquatic life. So far, so good, and it should be said that for the most part Ecover does deliver on its claims. However, Ecover’s parent company, S. C. Johnson & Son, has less of a squeaky-clean record. The company holds itself only environmentally accountable to its own ‘Greenlist’, which lacks third-party verification, and its other products contain potentially harmful chemicals. To top it off, S. C. Johnson & Son is NOT ‘cruelty-free.’ So where does that leave Ecover?

So why is ‘Greenwashing’ bad?

While it’s valid to argue that it is still better to purchase the more environmentally friendly brand, voting with your wallet and what not, this doesn’t detract from the fact that in purchasing these ‘eco’ side-products, you are still contributing to unsustainable practices. Bottled water that is “50% less packaging” still has a much larger environmental impact than tap water. H&M’s ‘Conscious’ range sits next to the ever-changing racks of its fast fashion lines. These ‘progressive’ aspects of products that brands flaunt in order to appeal to the environmentalist in us all almost always fail to fully address the problem they claim to solve. 

‘Greenwashing’ also allows big companies to stay relevant to changing market trends, and thus diverts attention away from smaller businesses offering better alternatives without the same exposure. It is a lot easier to pick up the ‘eco’ alternative if it is right next to the brand you’d usually buy, and so we continue with a ‘lesser of two evils’ approach rather than something that could actually make a much more significant difference. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, ‘greenwashing’ operates under the narrative that environmentalism is a trend to be bought and sold, as opposed to a movement aimed at the deconstruction of unethical and unsustainable practices. These false-hope products undermine the uncomfortable truth for a lot of brands: much of what they produce and how they produce it does not belong in a more sustainable future.

How can I avoid ‘Greenwashing’?

Unfortunately, it would be counterproductive to demand brands stop ‘greenwashing’ products. The silver-lining in their existence is that they make smaller changes more accessible, and do promote the conversation on sustainability in the general public. But if you want to take those bigger steps to a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, there are a couple of things you can do to avoid being duped by ‘greenwashers’. 

  1. Ask yourself the right questions before buying a product: How was this made? Who made it? Is this the best I can do with my budget? Say you want to buy some trousers from a brand that pitches itself as sustainable- look at the materials it’s made from, how much is synthetic? Searching brands on Google (or preferably Ecosia) is a great way to find articles and reviews on their actual carbon footprint and how ethical their production is.
  2. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it: Sometimes it feels like we’ve been trained to try and buy the lifestyle that we want, which comes into conflict with the mindful consumption values of sustainable living. Take metal straws for instance. If you don’t use straws in the first place, then you really don’t need a metal one! If you already have perfectly functioning trousers that you love, you don’t need to buy a new pair just because they’ve been made more ‘sustainably’. By not buying something, you cut out the need to do any research on if it’s ‘greenwashed’ at all.
  3. Spend some time educating yourself on alternatives: If there’s something you have to buy frequently that you want to swap out for something more environmentally friendly, take some time to do your research. If you want to change your shampoo for example, look up products that are more sustainable but also within your budget, and likely to work for you. It’s pretty pointless to pick up the first shampoo bar you see on a whim, pay a ridiculous amount for it and find out it leaves your hair feeling icky. Sustainable living really isn’t one size fits all, even if ‘greenwashed’ products make it feel that way.

Moving Forward: Mindful Consumption

Sometimes the best way to avoid ‘greenwashing’ is to not buy a product just because it tells you it’s doing good for the planet. Again: if you don’t need it, don’t buy it. When it comes to the things you do need, look beyond what the product is telling you and question its actual environmental impact. Caring for the environment is not a trend, and when we push against the ‘greenwashing’ of products we open up our societal structures to more systematic and long-lasting change.

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Jess McDonald is a second year student at QMUL, studying history. Aside from her reflections on the climate crisis, she also has a hidden love for Hollywood’s Golden Age of cinema.

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