Product labeling is important. Labels help us decide what we’ll buy and what we won’t. They point to a product’s quality, its price point, and even where it comes from. And with an impending climate crisis on the horizon, the latter has become increasingly important. People often assume the general public does not care about the environment. But they do. People want to make environmentally-conscious purchasing decisions. Indeed, 88% of US and UK consumers wish brands could help them lead more environmentally-friendly lives. But what exactly are companies doing with that? And how does product labeling play into it?
Eco-labelling. Too good to be true?
Reality and concept are not always one in the same
At the end of the day, brands lead themselves by the law of supply and demand. If the consumer wants something and companies want money, then it makes sense for brands to start selling it. In the fight for a more sustainable world, this seems rather positive. For instance, vegan products are becoming more and more common due to the increasing number of vegan people. So, in theory, as long as consumers desire to live more sustainably, sustainable products will become more common.
But practice and theory always differ. The reality is that it’s hard for businesses to go sustainable. Being environmentally destructive and caring little for workers is cheaper than the opposite. So, in order to meet the demand for sustainable products, brands resort to greenwashing.
Everyone has heard of it. There even seems to be outrage surrounding it. But does anyone know what it actually is? It’s easy to grasp the concept of companies using the “environmentally friendly” label as bait, founded on fiction. But how do brands go about doing that? And why are they even allowed to?
The whole thing is disturbing, really. There are plenty of ways to greenwash but two methods prevail. First, and most obviously, companies play with language. Because sustainability is relatively new, a lot of things are yet to be figured out. So, when brands say they are using sustainable materials, there is room for interpretation. And due to a general lack of regulations, defining such things is ultimately up to the companies themselves. Who knows, then, if the materials are actually sustainable? It might be difficult to assess for the average consumer. With that, brands are able to trick consumers into thinking they have made a commitment when they really haven’t.
The other—and perhaps more disturbing—method revolves around product labeling as “compostable” or “biodegradable”. To consumers, reading that on a product provides some sort of relief. They might feel as though they are not contributing to killing the planet. Yet the reality is strikingly different. While a lot of the products might technically be “biodegradable” or “compostable”, they might not be in practice. The fallacy lies in what happens when it is time to dispose of the product. It is highly likely that such products will end up in the “recyclable” can. This is only natural, especially considering the reduced availability of bins that are meant for what is compostable. Compostable and biodegradable products being thrown in with recyclable ones reduces the quality of the whole batch. As a result, it is likely that that batch will not be recycled.
So, in the end, it is all counter-productive, and very misleading. “Compostable” and “biodegradable” products often just end up being as harmful, if not more, to the environment. However, not all is dark and gloomy. Some are making real efforts to turn product labeling into something truly useful.
Product Labelling As Real Commitment
To counter greenwashing, we need brands that make real commitments. Big companies especially. They are already established, they have a hold in the industry. So showing that they can honestly engage in product labeling honesty is important. They set an example for the rest, and that is very powerful.
Fortunately, this isn’t only hypothetical. Only recently did brands likes of L’Oreal and LVMH begin developing an industry-wide system for measuring the environmental impacts of products.
The system would importantly be based on the European Union’s Product Environmental Footprint principles instead of arbitrary values. A shared database will store the environmental impact of ingredients and materials for every company. Then each product will get a score from A to E, which will be available to customers.
What is essential about such a strategy is the idea of being held accountable. In this case, it would be the European government and the other brands holding companies accountable. In that, this system is almost ideal. If there is anything about greenwashing is that it comes from circumstances in which companies are self-referential and do not respond to anyone. So it seems that hope lies in external actors holding brands accountable for their product labeling. And we should push for that, by calling for more transparency and perhaps a little more government involvement.Like This Article? Check out if the fashion industry actually changed after the pandemic.