What does sustainability actually mean, anyways?
Sustainability has become a buzz word in the recent decade- you can’t go a day without hearing it mentioned at least once (hurray, means we’re making progressive change). It seems as though every business is using it, warping ‘sustainability’ to simultaneously mean ‘hey, we’re a good company looking out for you”. Inevitably, somewhere along the way the word has lost its true meaning. For our recovering hypocrites who might be struggling to figure out where to start when trying to identify real sustainable businesses from greenwashing- don’t worry, we’re here to help.
First things first, let’s start with the basics- have you heard of the three pillars (3 P’s) of sustainability? These pillars describe how a business/product/service is sustainable through its relationship with the following aspects:
- PEOPLE: Are the humans and animals that interact with the business treated fairly?
- PLANET: Is the environment being harmed?
- PROFIT: Is the business operating well enough to last into the future?
WARNING: this is where confusion mostly happens, and why it’s important to consider what context the term ‘sustainability’ is being used in. It can refer to longevity of a company or product, but remember that it shouldn’t outbalance considerations for the other two pillars.
WTF is organic, Eco-Friendly, clean, Fair Trade etc. ???
Okay, so sustainability has three pillars. That’s all you need to know right? Roll the credits, case closed…
Nope, we’re only getting started and this is where it gets complicated. As sustainability becomes increasingly popular, businesses are starting to capitalise on the opportunity for more $$$, and a bunch of other similar and confusing terms have emerged as a result of this. Sure, it means that more corporations are taking steps towards sustainable practices, but how can we sort through the noise to determine which ones are genuinely trying to make a change? It might be useful to define a couple of the terms we see flying around:
Eco-Friendly: This relates to ecology, with the implication that the environment is not harmed in the production or consumption process. However, remember that ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainable’ aren’t interchangeable. If you buy fast fashion pieces that last you a lifetime, then your actions are sustainable, but that doesn’t mean that the product itself isn’t eco-friendly by default.
- Ask yourself: how will this product impact by ability to be kind to the planet?
Circular economy: This englobes activities that benefit businesses, society, AND the environment. The term refers to changing our 'take-make-waste' linear model towards one that is regenerative and takes out the ‘waste’ part (never forget to take out the waste).
- Ask yourself: was this product made to be thrown away, or is it durable? Can I repair it so it lasts?
Clean: As health becomes more of a concern, ‘clean’ refers to products that are made from natural, non synthetic ingredients.
- Ask yourself: What ingredients/materials is this product made of (and can I even pronounce them??)?
Organic: products are sourced from organic agricultural standards. Organic food does not contain pesticides, and organic clothing would be made from materials (ie: cotton, silk, wool) that do not use artificial chemicals during production- this includes dyes, washing products, etc. Bodies like the DEFRA (in the UK) or USDA (in the United States) regulate the labelling of organic products. For example, in the UK, products must contain at least 95% organic ingredients in order to be labelled as organic (did you catch that? this means the entire product might not be organic!)
- Ask yourself: How much of this product/piece is made from organic material? Is it certified?
Fair Trade:This term refers to both the ‘People’ and ‘Planet’ pillars of sustainability. A product might have mostly natural ingredients, but does the company treat workers fairly and responsibly across the supply chain?
- Ask yourself: Where did the ingredients/materials come from? How were they sourced?
Conscious: Used to allude that consumer awareness is prioritised, and that high standards regarding health and environment were integrated into a product or service.
- Ask yourself: Is the company transparent about their production processes?
An important thing to remember is not just what products and pieces we buy, but how we use them as well. Just because you bought a bunch of sustainably made clothes doesn’t mean they should be thrown away after a couple wears!
How to avoid greenwashing
The rise in popularity associated with being ‘sustainable’ has also meant a rise in greenwashing. This is when a company or organisation markets themselves as being environmentally friendly but in reality aren’t really (it’s all for show). Even though you’re familiar with the different terms now, it might not be easy to spot greenwashing. Organic labelling might be regulated, but labelling products as ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘clean’ is more broad and fuzzy in its meaning (how ‘clean’ is a product really??). Avoid the marketing ploys with these tips:
- Follow brands, not products
- Look at the labelling, and get familiar with ingredients
- I spy with my little eye…certifications
Responsible, sustainable companies ensure that all their products meet the same standards, but the opposite isn’t true. If you see a large conglomerate known for its unsustainable practices launch a ‘clean’ product, make sure to get your detective hat out before buying.
Pay attention to what terminology is being used on a product, and see if it matches the materials or ingredient list. A shirt labelled as ‘conscious’ that is made up of 70% polyester and made in Thailand doesn’t really add up. Checking the company website to see how they define the term can might be worth the effort.
As we said before, organic products are regulated and might display a ‘certified’ label. Fair Trade Certification also exists for fair trade products. If you still feel a little lost or you’re dizzy from all the information you have to consider, these certifications do some of the work for you.
Where to find information on your favourite brands
If you’re feeling extra curious and want to explore what brands are really sustainable, here are a few services to help you out:
DoneGood (www.donegood.co): Chrome extension that recommends ethical, sustainable brands as you shop.
Good on You (www.goodonyou.eco): A website and app that rates fashion brands based on sustainability and ethical metrics.
B Corp Directory (www.bcorporation.net/directory): A website that allows you to search all companies that are B Crop certified, as well as their scores for different impact measures.