The world is burning. Study after study on the environment and today’s climate crisis paints a pretty clear and alarming picture: Extreme weather, dangerously toxic air, entire islands sinking into rising seas, and vanishing ecosystems are all part of our present and future.
We’ve all seen the images, whether it’s pictures of polar bears starving amid melting glaciers, terrifying wildfires, or hazy cityscapes. These make the desire to lead more eco-friendly lives not only urgent but also more and more common. In fact, according to the 2021 Business Sustainability Index, most consumers want to support more sustainable brands and products.
There’s just one problem. Most people don’t know how to distinguish between sustainable and unsustainable products. More worryingly, companies aren’t in any real rush to help. Over the years, many businesses have even taken advantage of all this in a phenomenon that’s known as “greenwashing.”
The Green Sheen
Coined back in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, greenwashing describes attempts to make products seem more environmentally friendly in order to capitalize on growing consumer demand for sustainability. This involves making products seem more natural, healthier, or less wasteful even when they’re not. In other words, it’s when companies pretend to be solutions to a climate problem that they themselves helped create.
From fast fashion companies creating dubious sustainable clothing lines to oil giants asking people what they’re doing for the environment while keeping the effects of emissions a secret for decades — greenwashing is neither new nor rare.
It can also take on different forms in everyday items, which can come with fluffy language, jargon, or images that imply eco-friendliness without any real proof. Misleading at best, these work to ease our climate anxiety and raise profits, without actually doing anything to help.
That said, here are a few things that may not be as eco-friendly as they seem.
Reusable Cotton Totes
Cotton totes are trendy, functional, and seem much better than plastic bags, which harm the environment in terms of manufacturing and waste. But some are raising the alarm on today’s “cotton tote crisis” — and for good reason. As more and more companies give out their own cotton bags to build a more eco-friendly brand image, the bigger the issues associated with the cotton industry become. This includes a water-intensive process, child labor, forced labor, and the unrecyclable and non-biodegradable dyes that are used to print logos on the bags themselves.
This, of course, doesn’t mean you have to throw out the dozen or so cotton totes already in your collection. The key is to not leave them at home on your next grocery run, and to use them as often as you can.
“Green” Cleaning Products
Conventional cleaning products have earned a reputation for dirty ingredients. Among these are volatile organic compounds, which are carcinogens that can damage your respiratory tract, and phosphates, which can destroy bodies of water once they’re done with your bathroom. This has led to the rise of so-called “green” cleaners.
However, there is little to no regulation when it comes to labeling cleaning products as “natural” or “safe” for the body and the environment.
If you’re not ready to whip out a magnifying glass and read the fine print when shopping, here’s some good news: DIY cleaners made with household staples like vinegar, citrus, and baking soda do the job just as well.
In some ways, organic greens are definitely greener than regular produce: They undergo more sustainable farming methods and don’t involve synthetic pesticides. But unfortunately, there’s more to sustainability than those two things, and more land is needed to produce the same amount of organic greens as regular ones. Instead, what often matters more for the planet is how far your produce travels (and, therefore, how much carbon emissions are released) to get to your kitchen.
When in doubt, it’s best to buy local. What’s more, your local farms often don’t have the resources to have their organic practices and products certified.
Natural Sea Sponges
Natural sea sponges have been in use since the Roman empire, and they do seem more sustainable than those made from polyurethane and wood pulp. But the growing demand for and harvesting of this prehistoric sea creature, combined with the problem of harmful sewage discharge, means that they’re now at the brink of extinction. This spells trouble for the marine ecosystems that natural sea sponges play a vital role in. For example, they’re a primary food source for the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle.
You can try switching to plant-based loofahs, or just be sure you’re using your natural sea sponges as long as you can.
Hybrid and Electric Cars
While they do produce fewer emissions than conventional fuel-based cars, hybrid and electric vehicles carry their share of environmental costs. More energy is used to manufacture them, and their batteries are often made with rare earth elements like graphite, cobalt, and nickel. Obtaining these from beneath the ground is a lengthy and expensive process that destroys entire landscapes and poisons the air, water, and soil, often in ancestral lands in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines.
But if you’re already a proud owner of a hybrid or electric car, don’t fret. You can offset its environmental costs at the 160,000-mile point. And if you’re not, then it’s always best to take public transportation when you can.
So, What Now?
Trying to live a truly eco-friendly lifestyle may seem like a delicate — if not impossible — balancing act. This, alongside rising levels of climate anxiety, underscores one vital truth: Protecting the earth and creating more sustainable systems is less about the consumption habits of individuals, and more about the decisions of big companies and the governments that regulate them.
Growing consumer awareness over which products and brands are guilty of greenwashing and which aren’t is just one piece of the puzzle. Better brand accountability can be made a reality with more focused industry regulations on issues like carbon disclosure and supply chain transparency, as well as stronger political will from governments around the globe.
It’s clear that people want to save the planet and live cleaner, greener, and more sustainable lives, both for ourselves and the communities at greater risk of the consequences of climate change. But if the options given to us are in the service of profit instead of the planet — to the point of fooling people with greenwashed items — then we are going nowhere.