Eating clean. Living green. An idea of sustainability that is perfect for Instagram, complete with a shot of your cup of organic green smoothie sourced "fresh" from a million-dollar brand that caters to your needs of a fast-paced lifestyle.
Your eco-friendly habits are all the rage.
Let's talk about the contents of your trash can. How many layers of plastic packaging did you have to shove in there today? Five from the spill-proof wrapping of your smoothie first, and then perhaps some more from the disposable smoothie cup in your hands that comes with a plastic straw?
Your eco-friendly habits are all for naught.
In our desperation to be more environmentally conscious, we turn to brands that we're all well acquainted with, in hopes of receiving our desired sustainable goods from them. The reality couldn't be further from the truth. Instead of making the effort to supply consumers with their true demands, brands prefer to take the shortcut of an illusion, where sustainability is present only in name for marketing purposes.
The aforementioned strategy is cheaper, easier to execute, and promises a high rate of success.
We call it "greenwashing", a term popularised by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986. To put it plainly, greenwashing is a marketing tool used by brands to attract environmentally conscious consumers with vague definitions of sustainability, without actually adhering to its true meaning.
As consumers, by contributing to greenwashing we are doing more harm to the environment as opposed to protecting it, like we're initially led to believe by big brands. Greenwashing of products can be difficult to identify and brands can often get away with it by reaping easy profits, all due to the significant amount of ambiguity and vagueness surrounding the concept.
In recent years, the rise of environmental crises has led many people to put in more sincere efforts to lead a sustainable lifestyle and brands to appear more environmentally conscious and "greener".
In 2015 alone, it was reported that nearly 55 percent of plastic waste discarded consists of mixed material, which means that these types of plastics simply cannot be recycled due to their composition and design, leading to only 20 percent of the waste being recycled. This is where greenwashing comes in and proves to be dangerous rather than helpful since consumers are more likely to buy a product that is marketed as "sustainable" or "ethical" without pausing to look into the details of the brand's ethical and sustainable sourcing.
These days' lifestyle labels are more likely to sell eco-friendly products such as metal straws, or market sustainable clothing lines that customers are more likely to purchase from them. As a result of which the customers themselves are unknowingly contributing to increased pollution levels. Recent studies have shown that plastic makes up nearly 80 percent of marine pollution causing harm to more than 100,000 species of aquatic creatures. Moreover, fast-fashion clothing brands contribute to nearly 10 percent of carbon emissions with almost 85 percent of all fabrics and textiles being dumped annually. If you're wondering how such brands continue to rake in sky-high profits all the time, the answer's pretty simple: they keep the products affordable.
Picture this: a regular university student who's recently attempting to master adulting would try to make better life choices within a limited budget. This person has bills to pay and part-time jobs can only do so much. What do you think would be a wiser choice as per our student's budget constraints, a fast-fashion outfit retailing for a 3-digit price tag, or a limited-edition outfit crafted by a high-end label with a 5-digit price tag? The choice here is quite obvious.
Swedish retailer H&M launched their first eco-friendly clothing line "Conscious" in 2019. The brand ensured repetitive usage of the terms "green" and "organic" when promoting the new line, successfully steering people's interest towards those terms instead of the data associated with the production of such goods.
H&M's eco-friendly collection featured clothes made of 100 percent organic cotton. The sentence is an oxymoron, for it is highly unlikely that a product that uses up nearly 20,000 litres of water in its making could ever be deemed as a necessity for sustainability. To go even deeper into the long-term impacts of the large-scale production of cotton, we'll have to bring up the dying Indus Delta and the shrinking Aral Sea, both ecosystems victimised by the unsustainable industrial methods of cotton production. Current scenarios allow us to paint a bleak picture of what the future might hypothetically look like. Fashion and lifestyle brands already require a massive amount of resources to continue with their production and keep up with the high demands of consumerism, using textile dyes for production purposes which accounts for about 20 percent of industrial water pollution worldwide. Meanwhile the fashion sector has also been reported to increase the carbon emission levels up to 26 percent in 2050, alongside their generation of plastic products from which micro-plastic makes up about 31 percent of non-degradable plastic waste in oceans. By 2020, nearly 35 metric tonnes of plastic waste entered the water bodies and this amount is projected to increase up to 53 metric tonnes by 2050.
According to sustainable fashion activist Aditi Mayer, "True sustainability is a nuanced conversation that extends not only to the materials used or the labour conditions but also to the scale of production and consumption as well."
The next time you decide to buy a reusable cutlery or an item of clothing from a brand's "sustainably sourced" product line, do take a minute to ponder the behind-the-scenes action.
Look beyond the marketing. Ask the right questions. Our planet needs you, now more than ever.
Rasha Jameel is your neighborhood feminist-apu-who-writes-big-essays. Remind her to also finish writing her bioinformatics research paper at firstname.lastname@example.org
Raya Rafia Choudhury is a fourth year Environmental Science student at North South University.