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A Beginner's Guide to Greenwashing

By Alice Houlbrooke

So, you’ve decided to commit to a more sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyle? Or you want to dip your toe into the wonderful world of reusable items? Then congratulations, you’re now on a journey that will help the planet and (if you’re smart about it) your budget!

Living a sustainable lifestyle is more than just buying a cute aluminium lunch box and feeling the moral superiority surging through your veins. It’s a journey, and you will probably mess up at some stage. As sustainable living has become trendier the big CEOs of the business world have caught on and started marketing their products as being ‘sustainable.’ As consumers, we have no way of knowing how true that promise of sustainability is, as many companies are very secretive with the production of their products. This has caused the coining of the term “greenwashing.” Greenwashing is the process of using marketing techniques to create a false impression of a product's effect on the environment. And for unsuspecting people just trying to do their part, it’s an easy trap to fall into.

But never fear, that’s what this article is here to help with. I’ve only been truly committed to a low waste lifestyle for about a year now, so I’ve still got a lot more to learn. This is just a few ways I’ve learned to avoid putting my money into the hands of those capitalising on climate anxiety.

Reuse, reuse, reuse!

Using what you already have is the most sustainable thing you can do; those items already exist so throwing them out to make room for your new set of wooden kitchen utensils is a bit of a waste. If you can find a way to reuse things you already own until they’re falling apart, then you’re doing a lot more than you think. Get creative! You’d be surprised at how many ways you can reuse items you own to give them new life. Even if that just means using a broken cup as a flower vase or turning a t-shirt that no longer fits into a reusable mask or supermarket bag.

Watch out for buzzwords.

It’s no secret that advertisements for every product out there use buzzwords associated with the product to catch your attention. Greedy greenwashing companies are no exception, and trust me, they are very good at their job. Eco, green, planet, clean, chemical free, and non-toxic are just some of the words and phrases used to warp your perception of a product. There’s no law against calling a product “Planet Beauty” or “Eco Laundry”, and if the product is a little bit more friendly to the environment than the standard alternative then it can’t be claimed as false advertising. That’s why you see supermarket shelves lined with plastic bottles sporting the “eco” or “green” label when a plastic free alternative is most likely available. The term “compostable” has also been thrown around a lot recently, with many plastic products calling themselves compostable. And this is true! They are compostable, but you can’t just chuck them in with your banana peels. Compostable plastics are commercial compostable and must be composted at a composting plant. They won’t break down in a home compost because commercial composting plants are kept at a much higher temperature. Fortunately, Auckland has multiple compost collection services! A quick google of ‘Auckland compost collection’ should guide you on the right path. And they do accept compostable packaging.

Do some research.

Honestly, I have spent a lot of time researching things I never thought I would. There’s so much to learn when it comes to sustainable living that I doubt I will ever be done researching. Doing research in relation to greenwashing is so incredibly important as you never know what is in a product until you look it up. As a real-life example of this, when reusable coffee cups started becoming a popular product many companies started making cheap ones out of cheaper materials. One of these materials is bamboo wood, which was found to leak harmful chemicals when used for hot drinks. Research shows that bamboo wood is fine for cutlery and crockery, if hot liquids aren’t involved. As well as the safety of certain ‘sustainable’ materials, there are many organisations which a product can be certified by that will prove it’s not a product of greenwashing. Lookout for labels such as certified palm oil free, FSC certified wood, plastic free, etc. These labels are good to find because if a company is found to be using them incorrectly, they can get in pretty big trouble.

Be honest.

I recently saw an advertisement for a fabric softener that came in a recycled plastic bottle and the company offered a service where if you dropped off your used bottles at a certain location, they would reuse the bottles. The first thing I thought was “I could never be bothered to do that.” While it is a good idea and something more companies should be offering, the reality for most people is that they won’t have the time or ability to go and drop off a couple containers somewhere once a month. I was tempted by the advert to buy the product, but I know myself, and the fact that I don’t have a car and the location of the company’s warehouse was a decent bus ride. So, I concluded that I would probably end up chucking it in my recycling instead. Being honest about your ability to commit to certain sustainable practices are important. As well as being honest with yourself about how much you actually need a certain product. There have been many times where I was tempted to buy something that was marketed as sustainable just for the sake of buying it. But I had to be honest with myself, I knew that it wasn’t a necessity, so I walked away. This can be a hard thing to do if you’re a fan of retail therapy. In that case I’d recommend something like going to a charity shop, that way you can grab a cool trinket or new jacket while buying second hand AND supporting a charity shop.

Forgive Yourself.

You will mess up. That’s just human nature, but we make mistakes so that we can learn. Sometimes it’s a simple lack of research, or just trusting a company’s honesty when you should have looked up a sustainable one. For example, about a week ago I went into a shop just to look around and I spotted a wooden comb. I had needed one for a while now as the bristles on my 2-year-old plastic hairbrush started to fall off or bend in weird ways. When I got home and took it out of the packet, I almost instantly realised that it was actually a plastic comb that had been dyed to look like wood. While it was not my fault that the company mislabelled the product, I now know I should have found a website or store that I knew sold sustainable products. The main thing to remember is to not be too hard on yourself, no one is perfect, and it would be unrealistic to expect yourself to make all the right choices on your sustainable journey.


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