As global warning is knocking at the death door of our species, the most conscious of us marvell at the advent of sustainability-driven brands. We are so eager to see change happen that we are ready to embrace, often without a question, anything that looks just like it. But are these companies and their products really delivering what they promise? Unfortunately, far from it most of the time. There are multiple reasons for that.
In a world where sales and purchases are driven by perceptions more than realities, there will always be people adapting their speech to sell the same junk. In a world where most of our knowledge is second-hand and we assume all we read and are told is just true without checking, we make ourselves the unwitting preys to unwitting predators, because there will always be people who sell junk while genuinely thinking what they sell is absolutely great, because just like us they assumed a lot of things instead of checking. In a world where people have such specific functions they end up living in their little worlds, people take part without knowing in ventures that seen as an individual contribute or create effects that are contrary to what everybody thought they were doing.
We don’t naturally care about the reality of things. We assume the reality of things and even if we don’t, we doubly assume 1) the vendors know it even better and 2) take adequate responsibility. Finally the system (division of work) isn’t working in a way where we would automatically know about the reality of things.
All these incoherences are becoming increasingly visible. So let’s look at some of the inconsistencies in the field of sustainable products, and how these inconsistency take form.
Naming and Branding
Brands containing “Earth” or “Eco”, “Wise”, “Green”…
That’s branding, and unfortunately it works like magic. That’s until the brands get an image blow when someone expose the deceipt.
I have seen cardboard packages for fabric-softeners and other products with “eco” products containing a list of products I wouldn’t want in my house. I have seen packages with graphics of flowers and leaves, and blue planets on them and a whole world and wording of sustainability…all lighting up excitement in our monkey brains that rush to assume “what more natural than something with a bamboo leaf drawn on it”? But read the ingredients, and research some of them. You will see that more often than not…it’s not nearly as green as it ants you to believe.
But also “plant-based”, “plant-extracted”, and everything that suggests it comes from a plant.
The real questions should be: The compound in question is it actually safe? or actually environmentally-friendly? quickly biodegradable with no toxic by-products? What else was used in the process? How efficient and sustainable is that extraction? Is that plant sustainably harvested?
Those “plants”, how were they grown, stored, and preserved? Could they have accumulated heavy metals from the soil they grew in?
This is the most pervasive word.
When you naturally have bushfire that naturally burns wood, that naturally creates benzene and other hydrocarbons and particles that are toxic to life, do you want to inhale those?
In the late 19th century /early 20th century, many products marketed for their medical benefits routinely contained mercury and lead, all sourced from mines, natural mines, does that make these products healthy?
If you eat certains ferns, it is natural, but many times also carcinogenic or deadly if you where to eat a death angel or a death cap mushroom. All natural, do you want to try them? No?
The almonds I buy are imported from the United States. For strange reasons, they must be pasteurized by law, but nothing says so on the label. Are foods that are pasteurized (undergoing high heat and chemical treatments) still natural?
Some grains for storage use powered pesticides, are they still natural?
Is it natural to grow “natural” foods with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides…?
Hummus from Alaska (naturally composted organic material found in nature) is ironically sold to people who care about health and sustainability nd grow their own food, but is it really sustainable?
Peat moss, used in gardening for instance, is sold to the same people, do they know peat moss takes very long to grow and is harvested in China faster than it grows?
An organic banana that is ripened with chemicals, is it a natural product? Or still organic? Let’s consider “organic”.
Is wild fish sustainably harvested?
Is that wild food even healthy at all? (are there parasites in the wild fish? or heavy metals in the wild seaweed?)
How wild is wild, is a closed culture in open sea give “wild” fish?
Is the word “wild” controlled in country with a label that strictly defines its definition?
Is “wild” only historically part of the name like “Wild rice” which is interestingly neither wild nor a rice.
Let’s first aside that are a gazillion different labels and sets of rules (of any rules) to describe what is organic.
An organic produce is grown on a land that because of the geology is rich in arsenic and lead, the farmer doesn’t know but complies with even the most stringent criteria to get the organic label. Is that healthy to eat food grown on that land?
An organic crop is naturally grown on land that previously was used using chemicals and pesticides that are persistent. Is that organic?
A wild mushroom in an ancient wild forest if probably as organic as it gets, do you want to eat one?
Naturally found in the body
This suggest that the compound is harmless since you already have some in your body. Ok, but since when is it safe to add something in on or the body just because it’s in the body?
Human blood is naturally found in the body, would you want to drink some?
Gut bacteria is naturally found in the body, would you want to inject or eat some?
And anabolic hormones are naturally found in the body, would you want to inject yourself some?
Is there a label for biodegradability? Who decides something is biodegradable? How long will it actually take? If it takes 1 day, or 1 year, or 1 century to degrade does that mean it’s biodegradable?
In the process of degrading, how much life will it damage and alter, or prevent? Let’s take crude oil as an example, a highly toxic material if you didn’t know, in a few thousand or millions years in a forest would probably digest it, but how many people, animals and will have been intoxicated? The question probably ought to be “immediately it is bio-friendly?”, as in does it actually promote life? That could be said of clean rainwater water, is “bio-neutral” as in it doesn’t demonstrably affect any living immediately organism at any time scale looked at?
I have found more than once, products that claim to be eco-friendly but packagings that are not recyclable, and ingredients that are far from being eco-friendly in the sense I understand it.
How is something like a detergent or soap that potent preservatives (meant to kill microorganisms to extend shelflife) or antibacterials (to kill microbes on your hand) eco-friendly.
Also, if a company produces the most eco-friendly product there is (something like pristine drinkable water) but does so using extraordinary amounts of toxic chemicals to keep a sterile environment, and extraordinary amount of fuel to transport it, is it deceitful or not to label the drinking water as “eco-friendly” or any of the sustainable labeling?
“Everytime they chop a tree they replant one”
That’s the last trick I fell into.
That’s what the young lady at TARGET NZ told me when I bought wooden furniture not too long ago and asked about where the wood was sourced. Of course, I hadn’t done my homework on TARGET NZ and ended up relying on a saleswoman as clueless as I was. I realize in hindsight that I could have done this better…Anyway, here’s what she said: “Everytime they chop a tree they replant one, that I can guarantee you”.
Ok, but is it in a plantation that has been there for a long time? or is it a tree from the Amazon forest that has been cleared by poor local men working for foreign-owned companies, in a land that will become a grazing area for the cows that produce the methane ranking cows as the top contributor to man-made global warming? I don’t care where they plant that other tree, replanting a tree for each tree we have cut doesn’t alone constitute a token of sustainability, not at all. Even asking all these questions, in a small retail shop with newly-hired staff, can you sense that to get the truth about the origin of that piece of furniture is a bit of Mission Impossible? Chances are, perhaps nobody in the entire Target company would know about that…
Ok, some furniture was recycled. But why not recycle for all the shop then? Or is it just to satisfy those who care?
And the recycling wood, is it safe? or was it used for pallets transporting dangerous chemicals which may have spilled on them?
There has been a trend of people seeking more and more sustainability, and there are unfortunately people, willingly, or unwittingly marketing products that are not in any way sustainable or bio-friendly or quickly biodegradable with no harm to any life form…but are marketing using terms that appeal to people as being “good” products, products that are sustainable, eco-friendly…
This was about the harm we do ourselves by letting companies decide for us what is sustainable, what is life-sustaining and what is not. There is a flip coin to this, is our assumption that anything produced synthetically, or using some chemicals, is automatically a bad thing. We are biased to think that it is, perhaps rightfully so to a large extent, because there has been countless abuses with chemicals and their wonders which turned out very harmful if not deadly. But thinking all chemicals or synthetic things are evil is the dangerous sister bias than assumes anything natural is good.
What we can do?
It’s easier to point to problems than to solve them. But I want to offer a solutions too.
What we need to understand, especially the greenies targeted by specific branding and marketing:
Perhaps it’s not about natural or not, it is about the effects we seek, and how ALL the processes involved in entire the cycle of a product are systemically beneficial to life, harmless to life, and sustainable at all time scales to life. It may not be the ultimate best practice, but if go by this tennet until we find better, it will probably be the best we can do now, and we are certainly not doing that just yet.
We can point out to the brands and in public debate why certain branding strategies are incoherent and deceitful. Most brands have a feedback line or some way to contact them. Contact them.
They have an office, go and talk (kindly) to the CEO, forget about emails and phone calls.
As for public debate, you have a blog, Facebook, social media, relevant forums online? Use them!
You know people, talk to them, don’t assume you’re the only one who cares.
Entrepreneurs or employed by a company that makes beautiful claims? Challenge your own beliefs that you are doing something good, make sure with your providers that they provide what they claim? Ask for evidence and be the only first-hand judge of the facts you broadcast. If you’re not happy with what the market offers, make it yourself and provide to others. If you’re an employee, be interested in what your company makes, how they make it,educate yourself about the cycle of the product or service that your company provides, ask yourself, is it coherent with the marketing claims? Are we lying to ourselves and lying to others? Do other people in the company know at all? Do the customers know?