In my previous article, "What You Need to Know about Greenwashing," I failed to mention my own personal experience with greenwashing. I have been greenwashed before with specific products that eco-friendly shops sell and by some that are sold in regular stores. I also want to dive deeper into how this affects the environment and consumption habits overall. Greenwashing plays a major role in getting people to buy products that they think are sustainable but aren't. Basically, greenwashing tricks those who are not well-versed in sustainability into buying products because they believe they're doing better for the environment when they are not environmentally friendly.
Product Examples (that I was ~almost~ greenwashed by)
Compostable/Biodegradable Trash Bags and Compostable/Biodegradable Pet Poop Bags, if you didn't know, these are greenwashing because they draw on your instinct that compostable or biodegradable is better for the environment. Yes, it can be but not always. The companies making these products don't want you to think too hard before you buy them because then you'll realize that you're sending them to a landfill that uses regular plastic to cover and enclose everything. "The EPA’s website clearly states that when it comes to landfills, incinerators, and recycling facilities – “these locations do not present conditions in which complete decomposition will occur within one year.” And according to the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guidelines, companies shouldn’t even make biodegradable claims unless things will break down within this time" (The Zero Waste Memoirs). The issue with pet poop bags is that if you put them into a regular plastic bag, they will not compost or break down due to being in plastic.
Compostable Cups and Utensils
I, too, once believed that I should opt for these and that restaurants, where these were commonplace, were more sustainable than others. Although, again, if you're throwing them into a garbage bag lined with a plastic bag, there is really not a difference from using a plastic one. I think that these products are steps in the right direction, but they are not really solutions. There's a lot of work that needs to be done to make these alternatives useful, like making industrial commonplace within America.
Do you sense a theme here? When I began my susty journey a few years ago, I had no idea the difference between industrial composting and home composting. I mentioned this in my previous article because these are commonly used terms associated with a sustainable product. The average person understands what biodegradable means, and some even now know what composting is. And that leads me to my next point about how greenwashing has impacted me and how it impacts the average American consumer.
When I first began my sustainable journey, I often talked about sustainability with my friends and family. As I do you, I attempt to educate them on sustainable choices they can easily make that have a real impact. I like to educate on the importance of these changes as well, especially my parents. Greenwashing has affected my purchasing habits and my family by drawing on terms seen as eco-friendly. Although, unlike my family, I would say I'm well versed in the sustainability space, especially now that I've been working in. the space. For me, this means that I don't mind doing the research and really thinking about. a product before I buy it because I want to make the most sustainable purchase possible. For others, they look for cues like "biodegradable" to signal to them that this is an eco-friendly choice. I acknowledge that I'm not like most; I'm an outlier for these purchasing habits. This is precisely why greenwashing is a problem because the average consumer does not want to do extensive research, and they shouldn't have to.
My family falls within what I've been referring to as the average consumer category. They don't really think before buying, and they don't really want to change their habits, but recently they have wanted to buy more sustainably. For example, they've finally stopped buying 24 packs upon 24 packs of bottled water and use the tens of refillable bottles. They know what composting is, mainly because I forced a compost pile on them. While most young adults bring their laundry home for mom, I bring her my compost. I'm happy because even though I've (kind of) forcefully brought them on this journey with them; they're learning and have better intentions. Another example, I recently visited them, and my dad was excited to tell me that he found a bulk box of biodegradable Keurip cups at the local grocery store. Aren't they better for the environment than the other ones? In the moment, I didn't have the heart to say no, and I so badly wanted them to be better for the environment. It was a small win for him, and he wanted me to know that he was trying, and that's what inspired me to write this post. Greenwashing isn't just bad for sustainable companies, but until we have the resources to make these claims viable, it is still dangerous to the environment.