If a product bears the words ‘eco-friendly’, ‘natural’ or ‘bio’ on it what does that actually mean? In this article I delve into the world of Greenwashing to find out if we are being eco-friendly or just being taken for a ride.
Imagine this (for many of you it won’t take all that much imagination!):
You’re standing in the Baby Care aisle of the supermarket looking at the array of nappies in front of you. Different sizes. Different genders. Different prices.
You probably haven’t had a full night’s sleep in a while. You probably have at least one child in or around the trolley, and, chances are, whatever they may be doing, it won’t be ‘waiting patiently for mum to make a well-considered decision’.
A label with ‘bio-nappies’ on it jumps out at you. Now you’ve been thinking for a while that you should really be using cloth nappies, but it just hasn’t happened yet, or perhaps you’ve already tried them and, for whatever reason, it didn’t work for you. But this could be the answer! You can have the convenience of a disposable nappy AND be eco-friendly! Sure, they cost a little bit more, but it’s worth it right? For the planet! (in your head you start chanting “we’re the planeteers, you can be one too, cause saving our planet is the thing to do…”) Feeling good about your clean, green self, you chuck the ’eco-nappies’ in your trolley and move on (right after wiping the mashed banana from the trolley handle / picking up the raisins from the floor / replacing the pulled down baby wipes on the shelves).
That was me about five years ago. Back then, I hadn’t heard of the term ’greenwashing’, and I shudder to think of the number of times that I was ripped off by an in vogue green word, or an image of a leaf on the packaging.
Green washing is when an organization misleadingly promotes their products and services in an environmentally friendly way, when in reality the product or service has few or no environmental benefits.
For money of course! According to a report by Nielsen, 66% of global consumers say they’re willing to pay more for sustainable brands (Nielsen, 2015). This is great, right? Well, in theory, yes. The problem is that it has led to what I call ‘green-lies’ by companies to meet this demand and willingness to spend more. It is estimated that as much as 98% of apparently green products are actually a form of green-washing. (Faizal, 2019)
-Using images of plants, leaves, animals and the colours green and beige on packaging, without any substantial evidence of actually being eco-friendly.
-Products that are labelled “bio”, “certified”, “plant based”, “100% organic”, etc. without any supportive information to back this up. ‘There is a good chance that these labels are self-created and self-declared.’ (Faizal, 2019). Also keep an eye out for intentionally vague language like ‘natural’, ‘plantbased’ and ‘biodegradable’. Try to look past fluffy self-claims for national and global legitimate certifications.
-Products claiming to be ‘compostable’ – always check the fine print, as most of these are in fact, ‘commercially compostable’. Takeaway coffee cups are the ultimate culprit. They won’t break down in landfill, in your home compost or in your worm farm. The only place they will break down is in commercial composting facilities, which your average Joe Bloggs does not have access to.
-Companies that are largely unenvironmentally friendly, promoting themselves as being eco-friendly due to a minimal, token campaign or product. A case in point? H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’ – coming from a brand that is the epitome of fast fashion, busy searching for the cheapest possible labour and coming under recent criticism in regards to the unjust treatment and dangerous conditions of garment workers. It is sitting on $4.3 billion dollars worth of unsold stock, has been accused of destroying 60 tons worth of perfectly decent, unworn clothes and is facing new claims they are contributing to local waterway pollution and the emission of "noxious gases" in China, Indonesia, and India. ‘But we have a recycling scheme!’ they claim. Yup, well, when you produce more than 3 billion items of clothing per year, that are worn on average only 7 times each, a recycling scheme really is the least you can do! -Sometimes companies make completely irrelevant green claims. Ie, a product may claim to be free of certain substances or chemicals. The substance might actually be legally banned, or not a common ingredient in that sort of product, and it is therefore completely irrelevant to use it in green marketing. It’s like saying ‘this Ice-cream is 100% plastic free!’.
Greenwashing in nappies
So, what about those ‘bio-nappies’ I bought 5 years ago? Well, they are now sitting in a landfill somewhere, not breaking down.
I now know that with those particular nappies, if you put them in your compost bin at home (we didn’t even have a compost bin), then they will partially degrade over time– around 65%. (then I guess you eventually pull out the remaining 35% and put it in your bin?) You need to remove the waist band and valcro tabs first, and they do not recommend composting nappies with number twos. There is also the issue that if you are using them full time, any parent will be able to tell you that you will very quickly have an overflowing compost bin! If, like mine, these nappies find their way to landfill, they will not break down, as landfills do not provide the right conditions for biodegradation.
I contacted the nappy company to ask if they had done any research into how many of their nappies end up being composted as opposed to being sent to landfill. They hadn’t, but said “we would like to think that parents that got through the effort of buying compostable nappies follow through on it.”
I also had a look at the nappies currently on offer in the supermarket and noticed that other brands are jumping on the greenwashing bandwagon. ‘Made with sustainably sourced FSC-certified pulp’, ‘packaged in lightweight, recyclable packaging’, ‘derived from 51 percent sugarcane’ and ‘responsibly sourced’ are just a few on the claims I read. While these things are important and good, guess what? Regardless of how ‘sustainably’ or ‘responsibly’ sourced these nappies are, they all contain plastic, and are all still single-use items that will be entombed forever in a landfill, creating leachate in its anaerobic environment (not surprisingly, they don’t mention that on the box!)
To my understanding, there are two truly eco-friendly options in NZ when it comes to nappies.
One is cloth nappies, the other is Little and Brave Eco Nappies (available in Auckland, Whangarei and Tauranga). They are fully compostable, not in your home compost, but they have set up their own commercial composter, and offer a drop off/pick up service, as well as a growing map of collection points, to ensure that their nappies end up as compost rather than landfill!
So what do we do about Greenwashing?
Be aware! Be skeptical! Ask questions! Don’t be a sucker (like I have been) and fall into the trap of buying something with a cute green leaf on it without researching further. Chances are, you’re not being eco-friendly, you’re just being ripped off! Support companies who are fully transparent and 100% committed to being eco-friendly.
Quite simply, as Captain Planet would put it, “THE POWER…. IS YOURS!!”
You can learn more about cloth nappies here
And Little & Brave nappies here
Cover image from Greenbiz.com