Image credit: Vegan Liftz
How to avoid being led down the (green) garden path
We are experiencing exponential growth in the availability of plant-based products in response to a shift in consumer demand for more sustainable consumption especially around health, climate change and sentient being welfare. Sustainability conscious consumers are looking for, and drawn to, products that align with these principles.
Many companies have been plant focused for decades and new producers are rising up to meet demand with passion and authenticity. As with any significant shift in consumer behaviour some producers will rush to meet new demand by cutting corners or make compromises to be competitive. Consequently, the plant-based sector is not immune to greenwashing. Making the decision to go plant-based in consumption is a big choice. With many things competing for our attention, it is important to not fall into the greenwashing trap.
1. What is greenwashing?
Whitewashing is a familiar term to describe how deceptive words or actions can be used to cover up faults or absolve a wrongdoer from blame. Greenwashing is a term used to describe how companies can portray themselves as being more environmentally friendly or sustainable than they actually are in order to appeal to the sustainability conscious consumer. Typically, a claim may be made that is unsubstantiated or there may in fact be a very small change that is over emphasised to deflect attention away from an overall negative sustainability profile.
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2. Why do some companies do it?
Greenwashing is typically used to exaggerate a company’s sustainability credentials in an effort to mislead consumers. This is very different to green marketing which is used to draw attention to companies that have a strong green set of products together with a track record to be transparent and proud of. Many plant-based producers have this as an in-built core value and are creating products to change how and what we consume for the better.
3. How can greenwashing be avoided?
The more that can be done to educate on the characteristics of the various plant-based sectors the better. Check the claims of a company for specifics. Do they talk about their supply chain, their manufacturing process, their packaging or their delivery mechanisms? Every company will be different and all are not perfect but it is important to understand those that are making real efforts and striving to get better as against those that focus on relatively trivial efforts when it comes to overall environmental impact of their company. Let’s consider a few plant-based sectors.
Buying food is both a physical necessity and an emotional experience. Deciding to go plant-based is one of the biggest single decisions a person can make to positively impact climate change, health and sentient being welfare. However, it is still necessary to be vigilant and not fall for misleading or implied claims. Soothing colours and natural wholesome images on food marketing materials and packaging can seem very green friendly and are used to strengthen the appeal and impulse to buy.
Better to be forewarned and bypass this appeal to the senses and move on to read the ingredients, satisfy yourself that the actual ingredients listed are natural, and are consistent with any sustainability claims. As with all products, it is important to not only understand the ingredients but also how the ingredients are sourced, from where, and what the local impacts are of any such ingredients. If companies are focused on this then the information will be clear, easy to find and verifiable.
With clothes and other apparel, plant-based and sustainable don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. And it is pretty clear that fast fashion is not sustainable even with touted recycling programmes in place that only achieve a tiny percentage of re-use. While choosing a product with non animal materials avoids supporting unsustainable sourcing from animals it is important to be conscious of other materials which contribute to greenhouse gases and other practices detrimental to the planet.
Environmentally friendlier alternative materials to animal products can be made so check what they are and what they are made from. Pay attention to what companies say and how they substantiate claims with clear policies on sustainability. If a company makes this easy for you to understand, that is a positive sign and can be a win-win situation as against a potential trade off of one unsustainable for another.
With plant-based personal care products the expectation is that they are cruelty free and that all ingredients are natural. Obviously certifications from recognised bodies such as the Vegan Society, Peta, etc help make this clearer but companies that are more transparent with information on ingredients used and how they are sourced helps evidence that the company has sustainability at its heart. If a producer also informs and educates on why it uses or avoids certain materials then it is also adding educational value for better consumer decisions. Check out the Soil Association and other sustainability bodies for more independent information.
There are a growing amount of vegan supplements available but that does not explain anything about the sustainable sourcing, extraction, manufacture or delivery credentials of the products. The same general rules apply. Look for proof on the website and on the labelling to substantiate claims. Check where companies are going above and beyond any specific regulation. Some companies are 100 per cent vegan and others have a separate vegan line of products. While increasing the amount of vegan products available is good, it is important to check out other ranges and be comfortable with the overall sustainability big picture.
Greenwashing can extend to the packaging of products. A plant-based ‘eco-friendly’ product may overlook the packaging and with single-use plastic accounting for over half of global plastic pollution it deserves due consideration. It is also important to understand that nearly all goods require some kind of packaging and it has an essential function to protect products, increase longevity and ultimately reduce product waste. Optimal performance and sustainability can be achieved when producers and packaging firms work together to design solutions.
Check out what the producer says about its packaging e.g. is it toxin free? is it made from responsibly sourced environmentally friendly materials which are easily and efficiently recycled? With hemp and other natural materials becoming available they are significantly better for the environment than bi-products of the oil industry. Producers may also use or working on compostable packaging solutions made from a plant-based biopolymers. For many products, the choice of a recycled paper cardboard may be the most sustainable recyclable option.
It is undeniable that moving to more plant-based consumption is a significant step to more sustainable outcomes. The sustainability market can be quite confusing and it is sometimes difficult to know how to make the best choice as a consumer. It is frustrating as we all can feel like small cogs in a large global problem but conscious consumption sends a message back up the supply chain and it is important that the plant-based companies that are making genuine efforts be recognised and rewarded for it.
It is a hugely competitive market out there. Not all companies will have taken the all the steps to make it better. At least not yet. However, transparency is key and showing progress will enhance our customer engagement and loyalty.