Greenwashing



If you're reading this blog, you probably already know what greenwashing is- false or misleading environmental claims. There are six broad categories:

  1. The hidden tradeoff. Marketing a product as eco-friendly based on a single green attribute, like recycled content, without addressing other issues, such as where the materials come from, or how much energy is required for production. For instance, bamboo products grow quickly and are self-propagating. However, manufacturers may obscure the harsh chemicals needed to transform raw bamboo into usable material. Dean Foods markets Horizon organic milk as better for the environment, yet their cows dine on pesticide laden, genetically modified feed. The Body Shop focuses on fair-trade, "natural" aspects of their products, which contain petrochemicals. Carbon offsets absolve purchasers of guilt, fooling some into thinking they can consume more, instead of making lifestyle changes. I bought savon de marseille because it was "local" (within 500 miles) and natural, even though it contained palm oil.
  2. No proof. Environmental claims without supporting evidence at the point of purchase or on the manufacturer’s website. Household lamps and bulbs may be labeled "green" without evidence or certification. Personal care products can say "no animal testing" without providing proof or verification. Paper towels and tissues claim post-consumer recycled content without evidence. Some Energy Star-rated GE appliances furnish no proof of measurable reduction. Icebreaker clothing touts sustainability without providing an annual carbon footprint or clarifying Zque ethical standards.
  3. Vagueness. Marketing products based on broad generalizations too vague to have any real meaning, such as "all natural," "earth friendly," or "non-toxic." The mobius loop indicates recycled material, but doesn’t show the percentage of recycled material, or where it comes from. Arsenic and formaldehyde are included in all-natural cosmetics, like nailpolish. Lush Cosmetics markets a palm oil-free soap base, but uses sulphates derived from palm oil. Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney brand themselves as sustainable designers, without publishing carbon footprints. Additionally, they use PVC, toxic additives (such as chromium in the case of Vivienne Westwood, Azo dyes and chlorophenols for both), and sweatshop labor. Update: Stella McCartney is a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative and uses Italian production facilities  - which may or may not be immune from scrutiny, since some import illegal Chinese labor - for ready-to-wear / accessories and polyurethane, not PVC. According to Vivienne Westwood labels, production is in China and Turkey. "All natural" Tyson chicken sources meat from factory farms and CAFOs. "Pure and natural" Huggies diapers contain only 20% post consumer material. Food items labeled "GMO free" may require intensive petrochemical resource inputs to produce.
  4. Irrelevance. True claims that aren’t helpful to consumers, like CFC-free hairspray and sunscreen. Chloroflurocarbons were outlawed years ago, yet Skintimate shave gel still advertises it "contains no CFCs, which deplete the ozone layer." Bob's Red Mill sells 'aluminum-free baking soda' when baking soda doesn't contain aluminum anyway.
  5. Lesser of two evils. Tom's of Maine wants you to use their natural toothpaste with titanium dioxide and zinc chloride (which is corrosive by ingestion) in aluminum barrier laminate instead of plastic-free toothpaste or powder. Hemp crops are easy to grow and the deep tap root secures topsoil, but some producers and processors use heavy toxic chemicals (such as formaldehyde) to make the fabric.
  6. Fibbing. Some brands slap an organic label on their products without having established third-party certifications to show for it.

Why does any of this matter? It's easy to buy something- and possibly pay extra- because of misleading marketing. Look at how many people buy more expensive, energy-intensive items than they normally would, for the simple reason that they're marked "local" or "gluten-free" (not criticizing, just saying it happens. It obviously happens to me). Organic certifications in particular can be problematic thanks to regulatory loopholes. Ecocert, for instance, allows a mere 10% organic content, permitting sulfation, hydrogenation, petrochemicals, and synthetic preservatives. Soil Association is more transparent, though still permissive with petrochemicals and synthetic preservatives. USDA accreditation is costly, and some of the requirements are silly, like having a dedicated shower for the certifying agent, whom the USDA is not legally responsible for. Some of my favorite small family farmers cannot afford organic certification, yet use energy-conserving, soil-friendly, ethical growing methods, including permaculture. Further, words like "natural" are highly subjective and mean different things to different people. Lead is natural. I don't mind silicone makeup (I hate it in hair products); others do. Parabens, petrochemicals, mineral oil, fragrance, and alcohol are just some natural ingredients many eco-conscious consumers find undesirable.

Instead of relying solely on labels, think about the potentially toxic materials needed for each item, and the energy inputs required to produce it. Just because something is zero waste, organic, vegan, or local doesn't necessarily mean it's better for you and the environment. Bulk soaps, shampoos, and foods can contain palm oil, sulfates, and hydrogenated ingredients (the Skin Deep database is a particularly good resource for beauty products). Food miles are not a good indicator of carbon footprint or the overall impact of food, and depending on the crop, local foods may require more pesticides and chemicals to cultivate. Each consumer must decide what products align with their individual values. Maybe you're more concerned with endocrine disruptors and palm oil than animal testing, or vice versa. You don't have to spend all your time reading labels and doing research- I don't. My Aleppo or farmer's market soap has no certification (Alep certainly isn't local), but I know how it's made, how the employees are treated, I sometimes know the maker personally, and I like every single ingredient used. Don't be overwhelmed. The point is to be balanced and moderate when it comes to environmental responsibility, making informed choices instead of taking greenwashing claims at face value.

Paris to Go

18 comments:

  1. I have to come in defense of my fav designer - Stella McCartney. She does not use PVC. There is an assumption that all vegan leather is PVC. Not hers - I own a bag of hers and did my research prior to purchase. She has a white paper someplace online about how her formula for vegan leather use 4 times less resources than leather. I have watched every interview of hers - literally. She talks about how much trouble she is having sourcing ethically made and environmentally friendly fabric because there is not enough demand for it. And the supply chain that can produce for her volumes do not want to make a switch. That being said, I dont think she is perfect and immune to holes one might find.

    And I am loving this criticism. We do need more transparency and education. We need folks like you to shake us up a bit and rethink everything.

    I know you have gone the route of 'Make almost everything from scratch by yourself'. We need more alternatives for us folk who do not want to do that and want to pay the experts for their trade. I used to trust that my local Whole Foods did this research for me before they allow a product into their store. I am not sure anymore though.

    Reading about this makes me feel like I hit a brick wall and very helpless.

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    1. I trust your research. I didn't know she was one of her favorites! Did you know I met her? I have had dinner with her once and went to one of her parties. And on one of my posts on here there is a picture of me and my friends at an after-party for her fashion show. We got to take home the balloons from it... They spelled S-t-e-l-l and someone else took the A-shaped balloon. I threw them in the trash when they deflated - not very zero waste of me.

      I am sure you're right that she does not use pvc in her mainline. When I get to a computer I will make a little note in the post to look at these comments. The Stella McCartney for Adidas line at the moment has PVC items according to their fabrication tags. But, her hands are likely tied when it comes to the collaborative lines. From my limited interactions with her she does care a lot for animals and does not claim to be perfect. I don't mean to attack her or any of these brands because they might be trying. I myself have never provided my own carbon footprint and I certainly negatively impact the environment. However, I hope that people will not automatically think all her garments are eco-friendly or ethical. Instead, they should research, as you did. My silk lingerie is from her and it says it's made in China, although that is an ethical issue primarily (and I knowingly bought it anyway). Recently there were several pieces I liked of hers that were polyamide, rayon, elastane, and lycra. One thing I don't understand is why her website says her recycled plastic fabrics are 100% recyclable. I thought that wasn't possible with microfiber? However, the line is owned by Gucci group so despite her personal views, it's possible she can only tackle so many ethical aspects at a time, within their constraints.

      Whole Foods certification is fairly rigorous, though they don't sell exclusively organic products. Common sense (which you definitely abound in!) is probably all you'll need to make choices. I don't make much from scratch though! Eh, mascara, but I don't know where to get ethically sourced wax anymore. And kohl, I'm probably going to switch to the same kind as you soon. I don't have any time to make lotions and other stuff. As a hobby, it's fun to make things, but give me some soap, baking soda, and unpackaged olive oils and vinegars and I'm set. I wish I had the skills to make more from scratch, like make my own rings like you did for your wedding! Sadly it's not in me.

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    2. Oh I would love to meet her and have this conversation with her. In one of the interviews I watched, someone asked her some tough questions. And she said email a certain person and she will send the proof. Oh well, I would like to be cc-ed on that email. I will try sending this post to their PR and see if they can comment. Would be nice.

      Yeah, her collabs with adidas and if she makes a line for H&M, I have no hopes that it will have the same standards. I definitely do not think everything she makes is well done. And I personally dont like vegan leather shoes. They dont breathe and mould to the feet ( I tried ) and would pick real leather over her options. Bags, i dont mind since they don't have to ventilate.

      I didn't know she labels micro fibre 100% recyclable. Too bad. I am also really disappointed about PVC in her collabs. Esply coz she spoke so passionately in interviews about how bad it was for the planet. I spoke too soon perhaps. Out of some favouritism perhaps. I do love her designs though.

      While I like all natural fabrics, Stella seems to argue for semi-natural fabric blends. The ones that start with plant pulp and go little processing. I borrowed a book called 'textiles' from my university library and am reading it. Quite dont know if I can state one is better than the other yet. My friend Maanasa and me have this long standing discussion. I own a blue denim in 98% cotton and 2% spandex that fits me great and hasnt shown much wear/tear. Her 100% cotton raw denim took her months to break in and came with 8 months no wash rules. She argues that the effort is well worth it and I am the lazy one. Some day, I will transition into 100% denim too.

      I admire you for making do with whatever you can source. I had forgotten that anything can be homemade and used to run to a store for everything ! Making jewellry, 3d printing clothes, making sweaters, soaps, etc .... definately are another dimension of time commitment.

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    3. I saw on her website she said there was no PVC in their Adidas collaboration, but today at the Adidas store there was a bag that said PVC! I'm traveling next week but will take a pic of the tag and add it to this post (since these pics don't make sense anyway) when I get back. According to the Real Real some of her shoes say they have PVC on the tag but they may be from before they phased out the material, I hadn't thought about that until you pointed it out. I didn't know she was doing a line with H&M :( I'm sure she means it when she speaks passionately in interviews, but when people collaborate with companies that don't share their values, things happen.

      My jeans have 2% elastane and I like them too. Haven't seen raw denim in a secondhand shop yet, though my husband wears raw jeans. Sometimes I'm not sure if it would have been better for me to purchase 100% cotton ones than a secondhand shop.

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    4. I don't know what year this is from, but: https://www.theoutnet.com/en-FR/product/Adidas-by-Stella-McCartney/Printed-PVC-tote/632346

      I have a pair of Adidas sandals that I categorically do NOT wear anymore, which are PVC, despite their website saying they haven't used PVC in 10+ years. The sandals are much younger than 10 years. I've seen some of their Jeremy Scott collection is PVC.

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    5. Thanks for pointing that out Lindsay! My husband has two pairs Jeremy Scott x Adidas shoes. I looked at the fabrication tag of one- it just says manmade materials and PC. What is PC even?

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  2. I thought Whole Foods was safe too. They pay their workers a living wage. The Responsibly Grown ratings system has high standards for flowers and produce. Then I found out last year there was a scandal where they were accused of selling shrimp peeled by slaves. Some of their products are the same as the ones you can buy at Target, but with higher prices. They still allow carrageenan, MSG, and rGBH. I try to stay away from their prepared foods and canned foods as those can be the biggest culprits. They carry Eminence Organics, which I used to use religiously. They are another fake organic company with ingredients like formaldehyde releasers. http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/brand/Eminence_Organic_Skin_Care/

    For vegan leather, the company Melissa is usually branded sustainable for their product, which they also say can be fully recycled. It's just PVC. They established a closed-loop system for producing and recycling the shoes.

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    1. Hi Tiffany! I saw that about the Thai Union. I know Whole Foods said their inspectors did not find that they received shrimp peeled by slaves, but journalists said they did. It's hard to know who to believe! Thank you for bringing up Eminence Organics, there is an organic salon in my hometown that uses those products. I had a look at the ingredients once and there were several things I didn't want to use.

      Actually my next post was going to be about vegan leather (or carbon offsets). I don't know why I'm doing all these crazy posts :) PVC and PU are difficult to recycle so normally the best way to dispose of them is incineration, but incineration rates are low.

      http://ec.europa.eu/environment/waste/pvc/pdf/66.pdf
      http://www.polyurethanes.org/en/faqs

      That being said my leather and rubber Nikes have an EVA sole, which, like PU, are inert, contain no chlorine and less VOCs. There aren't many facilities equipped to recycle EVA, so most of it ends up in landfill.

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  3. I feel the same way about synthetics. Ok for bags, horribly uncomfortable for actual apparel. I love Stella McCartney, but it seems like every time I think something is sustainable, it's bad! It was news to me that she partners with Proctor & Gamble for her fragrances. That does not reflect well on the brand.

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    1. It's hard to know which corporations brands are associated with. At least the parent company Kering is offering measurable carbon reduction goals:

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/luxury-fashion-brands-are-going-green-but-why-are-they-keeping-it-a-secret/2015/12/08/d3d93678-8c8a-11e5-acff-673ae92ddd2b_story.html

      LVMH group has its own set of environmental and ethical issues, and that's where all my secondhand stuff is from! I am impressed with P&G's sustainability reports, but I wouldn't want to use a lot of the ingredients in their products, and I disagree with their packaging choices and testing methods, of course.

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  4. I own some of Stella McCartney's peace silk pieces. I saw an interview once where she said they can't always source peace silk and silkworms are killed for other items. It's important to realize that not all Chinese labor is sweatshop labor. Everlane makes some items in China and they are transparent about their factories and working conditions.

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    1. Those are all great points. Adidas is actually transparent when it comes to their factories in Asia, journalists were surprised at the working conditions, their hours are longer than they should be though. But you're right, we can't automatically assume something made in China is made unethically.

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  5. I am so frustrated with Toms of Maine. Their website celebrates their returning to aluminum tubes, but the aluminum is sandwiched between plastic? Why bother?

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    1. It's crazy! That used to be one of the plastic-free ones. It's too bad.

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  6. Very surprised to see your thoughts on local and organic. Many in the environmental movement tend to urge buying these products without qualification. I agree with you, it's not always healthier or better, and this is one of the things that turned me off these blogs at first. Now I understand the principle behind it, so I'm less opposed, but it's refreshing to see someone admitting it's not a cure-all for all our environmental problems.

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    1. Hi Danica, your comment reminded me of this good article, did you see it yet?

      http://www.wired.com/2016/01/the-insanely-complicated-logistics-of-cage-free-eggs-for-all/?utm_source=nextdraft

      My husband sent it to me and I immediately thought of you!

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  7. Ariana,

    Perhaps you could use your network to get the word out about the bulk app :

    https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/save-the-bulk-app/x/13294215#/

    It would be great to have something like this to save time. I spent too much of it finding tea in bulk and other stuff.

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    1. Hi Archana! I think we are on the same wavelength. I am doing a special crowdfunding project with Bea Johnson and a journalist from L'Express... more details soon :) Very excited!

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