This was a full-page ad in the New York Times by Patagonia in 2011 on their Black Friday sale to remind consumers what they should be doing!
A message to buy less from a producer is quite rare and far from the norm. Usually, when we are browsing for a new product, we are bombarded with buzzwords from influential marketing campaigns touting how their products are leaner, greener, and cleaner than the rest.
The fact that greenwashing has become an apparent trend is not even denied by corporations anymore. According to a Harris Poll survey recently commissioned by Google Cloud, 58% of executives polled across 16 countries admit that their organization has overstated its sustainability efforts. Leading us to the question,
How do we cut through the marketing that influences our purchases and find the right information,
And more importantly,
What should we ask for and have a right to know?
Here are some points you should know especially if you seek to demand more information to understand the products, what they are made of and their impact on the environment.
Corporate sustainability is different from product sustainability (and yes, both matter)
As you would be aware, corporate sustainability is how a company operates in a responsible way, considering the environment, society, and the economy. Product sustainability on the other hand is specifically about how a company’s products or services are produced and the impact they have on the environment and society throughout their entire lifecycle.
An organization could have its image as a good corporate citizen, by contributing to philanthropy, community, and charities, yet produce highly polluting products and operate in a socially detrimental manner. Associating a good reputation with corporate brand image and representing the corporate image’s brand equity in product markets is a strategy often adopted by many. That is why it is important to question and demand information on a product or service specifically to understand what has gone into it and which sizable impacts they have created. A life cycle assessment (LCA), product environmental footprint analysis, and an environmental product declaration (EPD) provide this information, measuring impacts through a rigorous process.
Environmental product declarations (EPD) play a crucial role in fostering transparency and enabling informed consumer choices in today’s marketplace. These declarations provide detailed and standardized information about a product’s composition, manufacturing processes, and environmental impact.
Other certification systems such as Ecolabelling help consumers to make sustainable purchasing decisions aligned with their values and preferences. By embracing and implementing robust product information declarations, companies demonstrate their commitment to accountability and environmental stewardship.
Adopting different alternatives does not always result in sustainability
An announcement made that an organization is shifting to a different alternative often grabs our attention. The common perception is that the alternative is a better one, yet if we look at information critically, this may not always be the case. Blindly adopting alternatives without thorough evaluation can result in unintended consequences and even exacerbate environmental or social tradeoffs.
It is important to look at the specific “context” and the complete picture including how the different alternatives are produced, used, and disposed of, as they would play a part in the absolute environmental impact. As an example, the distance waste materials travel, the level of contamination in post-consumption product streams, and the availability of facilities to recycle may matter significantly in a life cycle assessment that compares the impacts of alternatives. Here are some counterintuitive facts.
A study done by the University of Ferrara – Bottles made of aluminum need to be used several times to match the environmental impact of a plastic bottle as per life cycle assessment (LCA) studies. If plastic is made to reuse and the recycling can be carried out within a reasonable distance, plastic’s environmental benefits often outweigh that of metals significantly.
A study done by the University of Michigan – Comparing specific everyday single-use items to their reusable counterparts found that plastic options outperformed reusable versions of single-use straws, sandwich bags, wraps and cutlery, in terms of energy use, global warming potential, and water consumption.
A study done by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark– An organic cotton tote needs over 20,000 reuses (55 years of daily use) to offset its production costs, while paper bags require at least eight reuses to match the environmental impact of plastic bags due to the resource-intensive paper pulp production.
As consumers, questioning the marketing and demanding the real facts is very important to make an accurate purchasing decision aligned with our values.
Both the product and the value chain that takes it matter
Designing the product for end of life and operability of the system that handles the end of life of a product matter equally. For example, a product being recyclable, and its recyclability are different concerns that need to be addressed separately.
Recyclability refers to how easy or possible it is to recycle a product or material. We adopt techniques like design for dismantling or disassembly to separate the products from their components and to divert materials for recycling. Not all things labeled as recyclable can actually be recycled due to different challenges. One of the main concerns is how the system around post-consumption product collection, segregation and recycling is happening. The most recyclable product can easily end up in landfill and not recycled, if the system for its end-of-life management is ineffective and indifferent to how they recognize and treat such products.
Producers have extended responsibility for products and we (consumers) have the right to demand more
In the realm of sustainable business practices, the concept of extended producer responsibility has gained significant recognition. It states that producers should bear the responsibility for their products throughout their entire lifecycle, including after they are consumed or disposed of by consumers.
This approach emphasizes that producers have a crucial role to play in minimizing the environmental and social impact of their products. It entails designing products for durability, recyclability, and safe disposal, as well as implementing effective take-back programs and facilitating proper end-of-life management.
Whether voluntary or mandated, the extended responsibility is real, and hence as consumers, our power to question manufacturers about what they sell to us should not be discounted. Irrespective of the quantities we buy, demanding more information as to how it is produced and how the manufacturers envision a product’s end of life (and/or regeneration) should be our right, and we need to exercise it to the best of our ability.