May 12, 2020

Sustainable or Greenwashed?

Sustainability is a buzz word, that nowadays companies like throwing around for good publicity and a marketing boost. Some of those brands might actually conduct their business in a sustainable way, others (the majority?) is making a lot of fluff about not very much. In this post, I want to dive deeper into the basics of sustainable design and give you a big picture overview of all the things one has to think about in order to achieve a fully sustainable production process.

The journey of a pillow case..

In order to make things a bit easier to explain, I've picked out one example product, that we can follow. Let's say you want to purchase a new pillow case to spice up your living room a bit. Maybe you are looking for a bargain and end up at a fast fashion brand's home goods store. You know for sure, the prices are going to be affordable and they will probably have some trendy pieces for you. You might stumble across this:

This is a nice handwoven looking pillow case with a mix of chunky and thinner yarn - great texture and nice subtle colors. I'd love to have this one in my living room.

But before we get too excited, I'm always curious where things come from and what they are made of, so I tried scrolling down to find more details about the pillow. Finally I find the very hidden tiny "+INFO" button (encircled in orange on the left) and click on it to learn more. There is some basic information about the material and some care instructions. Looking around on the rest of their online store, not much other information about the origin of the products can be discovered.

Out of sheer lack of transparency, I have to assume, that this product fits perfectly into the standard cylce of production and consumption, which looks like this:

The linear product life cycle

Most products we consume in our day to day live, follow a life cycle like depicted above. It's a linear movement, from raw materials to waste. Sustainability has little place in this drawing. In the worst case, the life of this pillow case goes as follows:

Raw materials are usually farmed or extracted under poor conditions and without respect to the environment, for example by cutting down forests to make space for monocultured crops. The people working to grow or produce those raw materials are often underpayed, due to global market price pressures. In wealthier areas, the cotton neede for a pillow case like this, could be harvested by machines, while it would have to be picked by hand elsewhere. The price for machine-harvested cotton can of course be a lot lower and the farmers picking by hand have to adjust accordingly and underprice.

Products are designed quickly, according to trends and short term marketing campaigns, without any regard for resource efficiency, material composition or recyclability. Designers are pressured to create the next best-selling pillow case, without much time and freedom to truly think it through from start to finish.

In the next step, products are manufactured abroad, where labour is cheap and working conditions are unregulated. Often the manufacturers and their subcontractors are somewhat unknown to the brand selling the products, as the networks of production can be very distributed and informal. This pillow case might have been made by children, slaves or abused women and the big company pocketing all the profit may not know or choose to ignore it.

Further, products are shipped from the manufacturers to distribution centers and warehouses, causing enormous amounts of transportation emissions. Containers full of pillow cases are shipped around the globe and sometimes they don't even make it to the store. When a company exceeds import limits, it is often cheaper to burn products than it is to distribute them elsewehere or recycle them.

Finally, the pillow case arrives at the customer, where it is used for a short time - either because the style goes out of fashion or the item breaks due to it's low quality. Societal pressures, media and agressive marketing encourages consumers to make impulse decisions, encourages to follow trends and encourages to always look for the next better and cheaper thing.

The end of the journey is often in a landfill. Sometimes, products may be recycled or reused via the secondhand economy, which is completely independent from the company who produced and sold the product in the first place. In the end, this pillow case will at least partially decompose, as it is made from natural fibres. But what about the zippers? The thread that is used to sew the pieces together? They are most likely synthetic and won't really decompose at all - ever.

A sustainable pillow case??

Of course ZARA won't publish a product story like the one above, nobody would buy their pillow cases anymore. But people still ask and people demand to know more about the products they are buying. Let's look at this other pillow case I found during my attempt to find any sort of sourcing information.

Join life - a poetic name for a small collection of items, that are made from sustainably grown materials. This is just one example of a fast fashion brand, trying to get onto the sustainability bandwagon. H&M's conscious collection would be another example. Before I go any further, this is a great first step into the right direction and it shows, that customer demands do actually motivate giant coorporations to do change something - a little bit - a teeny tiny bit. It shows that they - or a group of people who work there - actually care a little bit. Even if this is not enough, it's a small change and hopefully bigger changes follow later.

Being as critical as I am, of course I expected some more information in the "+INFO" box. Again we have the same information about the material (which says 100% linen, and therefore completely ignores the zipper that is part of this pillow, that is certainly made from synthetics or metal..) and the care instructions. Even on the dedicated page that introduces this special collection there is only information about the sustainably grown raw material, but nothing about manufacturing, distribution or recycling policies. All in all, this information is quite vague and the whole "sustainability" aspect is just focused on one tiny part of the product life cycle - the raw material.

The greenwashed product life cycle

If we revisit the product life cycle from the first pillow case and adjust it for this more "sustainable" option, we can see that not much has changed. Step one has dramatically improved, even though the information on where exactly in Europe the linen is grown and if the farmers are payed an appropriate price for the material is not disclosed or easily found. But let's give them the benefit of the doubt and assume, their material source is now sustainable and ethical.

The rest of the chain though, looks exactly the same. There is no information about the design, manufacturing, distribution, consumtion and potential recycling to be found, leaving only the assumption, that those steps are done in exactly the same way as for their other products. Who says that the European fiber is not shipped to Asia to be manufactured under the same miserable conditions, just to be shipped back to the European stores? 

This is a prime example for greenwashing. On the website and in the product description, the one "sustainable " aspect is highlighted and presented quite clearly, while all the other (important!) information about the product is left out or hard to find. Consumers are lead to thinking that they are purchasing a very sustainable product and supporting a better production process, even though in reality, the product is just slightly more sustainably than others. This one tiny aspect of a product is used to gain a competitive advantage over "less sustainable" businesses and of course it is also used heavily in the marketing of the product.

The company used as an expample here is of course and by far not the only one engaging in these illegal practices. After all you are tricking the customer, providing false or vague or half true information. Highlighting just one sustainable aspect is not the only greenwashing strategy, there are many more. Some brands use irrelevant statements, such as the label "vegan" on a pack of oats (or "lactose free" on soy milk..), some use false statements or made-up certificates, some just talk and talk and never do. There is a really good and comprehensive list of strategies on the "Greenwashing" wikipedia article.

A sustainable product life cycle

So what do you have to consider to truly make a sustainable product? A lot. First and foremost, there can't be a linear product life cycle, where products are made from (non-renewable) raw materials and then end up as waste. Earth's resources are limited and that already makes this model non-sustainable by default. Instead, we have to think about a circle, where products and waste become raw materials again. This is what is called a circular economy.

If you compare the image above with the previous drawings, everything is different. This model represents one way to design a circular product life cycle and it is something we use here at Wasteless Wonders.

If you want to design a truly sustainable product, you have to think about: 

  • Material: Is it renewable? Where is it produced and how? Can we use waste materials instead of new?
  • Design: Is this product timeless? Is is functional? Can it be made efficiently and with little waste? Can we re-design the business model to avoid deadstock and excess?
  • Manufacturing: Who is making the products and in what conditions? Can we produce as local as possible? Can we produce with environmentally friendly tools and energy?
  • Distribution: Are there ways to distribute, using clean energy? Can we produce where the customers are and reduce transportation?
  • Consumer / User: Can we support the consumer to make conscious decisions? Can we support the user to care and repair their product? Can we foster re-use and the secondhand market?
  • Collection: How can we take responsibility for our own products? How can we take back our products and re-use their materials? How can we make our products easy to recycle?

Of course this is not a complete list of questions and there are many many more aspects that go into designing sustainable products. Some of them are about systemic and economic frameworks and business structure, not only about the products themselves. Some of them are easier and some really really hard to implement. But as long as we all work together and try to implement one more sustainable option every day, we are making a step forward.

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