A darker shade of green

The stark difference between the environmental promises a company makes and its real-world actions can give rise to consumer claims of hypocrisy and greenwashing. Martin Bewick investigates where it all goes wrong.

In a drive to reduce textile waste, fashion retailer Primark recently announced it was introducing in-store recycling schemes in each of its 190 UK stores. Primark’s high-street competitor, H&M, said it collected 29,000 tonnes of clothing at in-store ‘take-back points’ in 2019, far surpassing a target of 25,000 tonnes for 2020.

The returned clothing is passed to a recycling partner in Berlin and what can’t be remade into clothes is recycled into products including cleaning cloths and insulation fibre.

When it comes to waste, these are good news stories, aren’t they? Of course they are – but other stories can be told too. Globally, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an estimated 92 million tonnes of textile waste is still created each year, and the equivalent of one waste truck-full of clothing heads to landfill every second.

Greenwashing is not just about what a company does, it’s about what it says it does in its drive to increase sales or revenues.

By 2030, more than 134 million tonnes of textiles will be discarded every year. Such jaw-dropping figures put the brands’ efforts to reduce waste into context.

Let’s take a look at a different sector – the drinks industry. The Drinks Industry Sustainability Index – Trends Report 2020 is compiled by C&C Group, the global manufacturer that counts Magners among its drinks brands. Its report highlights brand innovations that make good headlines, but also sees the bigger picture.

Carlsberg UK, for example, sends spent grain from its brewing process to farmers for cattle feed. Its used yeast becomes an ingredient in yeast extract. London brewer Toast Ale takes the unused ends of bread loaves from sandwich makers to replace a third of the barley they would use to make their beers. This reduces the demand for virgin barley, as well as the land, energy and water that would have been used to grow the barley.

In the report, industry confederation FoodDrinkEurope notes: ‘The industry is exploring and investing in innovative outlets such as bio-plastics and biofuels.’ Tackling waste in brewing, however, remains a huge challenge.

Spent grain creates an estimated 42 million tonnes of waste globally every year – 85 per cent of the industry’s overall waste. And then there are the hospitality venues. C&C Group notes that only 50 per cent of glass drinks containers are recycled, while bars, restaurants and pubs account for 200,000 tonnes of glass going to landfill.

Promises and hypocrisy

How committed are big manufacturers to reducing waste? Plastic makes a good case study. Earlier this year, the Changing Markets Foundation analysed voluntary sustainability commitments made by what it called the ‘10 biggest plastic polluters’ that, between them, have amassed a plastic footprint of almost 10 million tonnes per year.

Its Talking Trash report claims that companies, including Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, Mars Incorporated, Mondelez International, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble and Unilever, use voluntary commitments to ‘appear to be part of the solution’, while also opposing and lobbying to delay legislation to tackle the plastics crisis.

Hypocrisy is at the heart of what the public sees as greenwashing, especially when it is applied to the brand promises made around consumer goods.

From fashion companies to food and drink, and from airlines to car manufacturers, appealing to consumers who care about the environment by claiming products are more eco-friendly than they actually are is rife. And where consumer brands and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) lead, other industries and sectors often follow. How can they avoid falling into the trap of greenwashing? Sometimes it starts with language.

Where there is a profit to be made, however, promises usually follow. Greenwashing is likely to continue to be an issue for some time yet.

‘A term such as “sustainably sourced” or “responsibly sourced”, for example, can be misleading,’ says Mark Hilton, head of sustainable business at Eunomia. ‘What does it mean? Without the rigour of recognised standards and audit trails, these claims mean very little.

‘Another common area of greenwashing is where a company heavily promotes its green credentials based on a single “eco-product” or “eco-range”. Even if this product is fine in itself, it actually only represents a tiny fraction of their overall production.’ It is this bigger picture than needs to be addressed.

Greenwashing is not just about what a company does, it’s about what it says it does in its drive to increase sales or revenues. This could be Volkswagen’s headline-grabbing emissions scandal, in which it admitted to rigging the emissions data for 11 million vehicles.

Or it could be global hotel chains swapping small single-use bottles of toiletries for pump dispensers in bathrooms in the name of sustainability when – although it will reduce waste – it is also a cost-cutting move that can save the chains huge amounts of money.

Scale of the problem

Dan Dicker launched the Circular Cup in 2018

Sometimes it’s simply the scale of the issue that causes the environmental headache. ‘Apple has made more than two billion iPhones – a phone for every person in the whole of Africa and Europe,’ said Philip Dunne, chair of the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) recently. ‘With the speed at which new devices are brought to market, tech companies drive consumers to buy new products rather than prolonging the life of their existing items… My committee continues to wait for answers on what the company is doing to tackle its environmental footprint.’

Apple’s supplier responsibility web page notes that, ‘as we design, build and recycle our products, we feel a profound responsibility to protect the Earth’. But with concerns raised around in-built obsolescence in their products, and the difficulty in recycling the lithium-ion batteries that are classed as hazardous waste, it could be argued that feeling a profound responsibility is not the same as doing anything about it.

Mark Hilton at Eunomia advises caution when assessing any sustainability claims.

‘The claims around compostable, biodegradable and “plastic-free” packaging, for example, are often misleading,’ he says. ‘While consumers often think that these materials are “natural” and inherently good, they are often not informed about the reality. For example, some compostable polymers are still made from fossil fuels, most biodegradable polymers only biodegrade in industrial composting facilities – and a standard, EN13432, needs to be met.

They won’t biodegrade in nature or even in home-composting facilities, and there are no separate collections for compostable polymers. If they are placed in food-waste collections, they are mostly screened out and sent for incineration, and can contaminate recycling streams if confused for regular plastics.

‘Even the term “recyclable”, or “100 per cent recyclable”, for regular plastic packaging can be misleading. An example is PET ready-meal trays, which, while technically recyclable, are rarely recycled and then only as a tolerated contaminant in PET bottle-waste streams. What is often missed is the difference between the theoretical – related to the material properties – and the reality – related to use and likely waste management context.

Unfortunately, consumers are generally less well-informed than larger businesses, and I’d say that consumers continue to be duped, whether deliberately or unintentionally,’ says Hilton.

Circular solutions

At sustainable design consultancy Circular&Co, Dan Dicker also questions whether greenwashing is always a deliberate act. ‘A lot of it is led by naivety,’ he says. ‘There’s no definitive guidebook or industry bible that explains what to do. A certification scheme might be a good idea.’

Dicker is a former Dyson designer and innovator with 17 years’ experience in circular design. He warns that companies shouldn’t assume that consumers will lead the change to more sustainable business practices.

‘You can’t rely on consumers and consumer behaviour being the silver bullet for change. Consumers don’t change overnight, and they can only recycle what they’re given and with the infrastructure around them. The UK is one of the better territories for recycling but, even here, there’s still a lack of infrastructure for capturing, breaking down and recycling materials.’

In 2018, Dicker launched the Circular Cup. This reusable coffee cup is made from recycled ‘paper’ cups, designed to last 10 years, and is 100 per cent recyclable – although it is made from polypropylene, which many local authorities can’t currently collect.

‘Costa and McDonald’s approached us, and we worked out a way of recycling the whole single-use coffee cup without having to separate the outer liner from the inner plastic liner,’ says Dicker. ‘The cups are turned into a resin and, from this, we created a high-value product from the waste stream. In doing so, it increases the recycling value of the original coffee cup. It went from being a worthless commodity that no-one wanted to touch and, so, wasn’t being recycled, into something of value. True circular design increases the value of low-value commodity waste.’

Dicker says a sound circular design model may help reduce perceived instances of greenwashing: ‘A three-pillar circular design principle means products are made out of waste material, they’re designed to last as long as possible, and they’re recyclable.’

The latter, he acknowledges, is the most difficult to achieve. Indeed, European Commission guidance states that any claim regarding a specific end-of-life option can only be made if the corresponding facilities can be accessed by a reasonable proportion of consumers.

‘The circular movement is getting bigger,’ Dicker says, ‘but it’s not just about product design, it’s about how companies generate waste. Generally, bigger companies have the leverage to make changes. They control the supply chain and have the volume, so that waste companies can build infrastructure around it.’

A question of purpose

Improved design and infrastructure might help to deliver the circular future the planet and society needs but, until it arrives, the marketing noise around sustainability, whether in consumer goods or across industry sectors, is likely to grow louder.

For those at the forefront of sustainable business, such as Mark Hilton at Eunomia, greenwashing will always occur when bold promises take precedence over definitive facts.

‘The international standard on self-declared environmental claims is ISO 14021,’ he says. ‘There are similar codes at the EU level and related UK guidance. This is about businesses only highlighting benefits that are relevant to the main environmental impacts of their product or service, and being clear and truthful about what they are claiming, and substantiating that claim with scientifically based evidence. Greenwashing is anything that doesn’t meet these criteria and is making a general, irrelevant or unsubstantiated claim.’

Where there is a profit to be made, however, promises usually follow. Greenwashing is likely to continue to be an issue for some time yet.

This feature first appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Circular.

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