I was literally buying way into sustainability when I first began my sustainability journey. Raised in a consumerist society, I was conditioned to believe that green buying can improve our planet’s situation.
I had this utmost urgency to make my entire household eco-friendly. The need for instant gratification had spurred a lot of impulse buys; the glut of choices available wasn’t helping either. It was easy to justify my ‘green’ purchase, “They’re earth-friendly, aren’t they?” I thought and proceeded to check out my cart even though I already had some of the stuff I bought.
Now, conscious consumerism can be a (dangerously) deceptive illusion; it can hoodwink us—thanks, greenwashing—into thinking that we are doing good for the planet. And there you go; we’re stuck in a perpetual cycle of consumption.
The truth is, you can’t solve overconsumption—the root of our environmental crisis—with consumption. We need to, and we can do way better than trying to buy our way into sustainability. Besides, contrary to green marketing, sustainability isn’t a product or a thing you can buy. Sustainability is a mindset and a lifestyle.
Furthermore, sustainable products are far from a perfect solution. Let’s look at the impacts of the ostensibly sustainable products that I bought and find out why:
1) Reusable Products
Things that I bought: Metal straws, cotton tote bags, and silicone snack bags for my Bring Your Own (BYO) kit.
Reusable products have been gaining traction over recent years; many businesses, small and leading brands alike, are pushing out reusable alternatives that are ostensibly green.
These alternatives purport to divert single-use products from landfills, but here’s the catch: if consumers purchase recklessly without committing to a reusable lifestyle, they are not going to do much good for our planet. Suppose you have a BYO kit (a tote bag, reusable cutlery, silicone snack bags/containers) but you don’t commit to take them out or maintain them (to extend its product life). They end up hardly used at all and then thrown away when they no longer ‘spark joy’. That’s when these reusable alternatives can be worse for the environment than their single-use counterparts.
Reusable products like cotton totes and snack bags have a “payback period”, as explained by Shelie Miller, a professor from the Environment and Sustainability Faculty at the University of Michigan. She explains that reusable products have to be reused a certain number of times “before it’s actually better for the environment than the single-use alternative.”
Of course, the numbers differ for different products, but generally, a cotton tote bag must be used 20,000 times to break even the environmental (and social) impacts associated with its production. As we all know, cotton is a water-guzzling crop, and your cotton tote could be made with forced labour (as with cotton and Uyghur slave labour). In sum, it’s likely that your reusable product is only ‘sustainable’ if you continue using it until it breaks even.
2) Biodegradable Single-use Products
Things that I bought: Compostable snack bags for gifting homemade baked goods and corn ware for a picnic party.
As consumers search for greener alternatives, many have switched to biodegradable products to reduce carbon footprint and reliance on fossil fuels. Biodegradable plastics are perceived to be better because they are buried in landfills to degrade, unlike traditional plastics, which instead break into tiny fragments called microplastics over time.
However, that’s may not the case though; not all biodegradable plastics are created the same. Some of them can only degrade under special conditions in industrial facilities, says Jason Locklin, the director of the University of Georgia’s New Materials Institute. So, if a corn-based plastic wound up in the landfill, it will remain there for a long time as the conditions to break down the waste are likely not met in the landfill.
Not only that, bioplastic wastes are considered impurities in the current traditional plastic recycling systems as they could hamper recycling efforts once they get mixed at the recycling plant. The recycling stream could easily be contaminated because of the resemblance between PET bottles and biodegradable products.
Higher Carbon Footprint
Additionally, certain biodegradable plastics may have a higher carbon footprint as more resources are used in production. And in Singapore, where we incinerate most of our trash, perhaps biodegradable plastics may not be better alternatives after all because these plastics have environmental impacts similar to conventional plastic when incinerated. These point toward the possibility that some biodegradable plastics could be just as harmful as traditional plastics.
Perhaps more research must be done on the product’s environmental impacts before it’s produced and marketed as “eco-friendly” or “sustainable”. The resources used in making bio-based plastics “could have been used for food instead of convenience,” says Pek Hai Lin, the general manager of Zero Waste SG.
Unfortunately, the notion of convenience is still very much ingrained in our throwaway mentality, and biodegradable plastics don’t do anything to break the reign of single-use plastic. The planet’s situation may remain status quo or even worsen until the day consumers ditch their single-use mindset.
3) “Sustainable” Fashion
Things that I bought:‘Sustainable’ line from fast fashion; it was all I could afford as a student. Back then, I honestly thought it was sustainable fashion that won’t break the bank.
If you noticed, “sustainably-grown”, “eco-friendly”, and “vegan” are some of the buzzwords in the fashion industry lately. That’s right, these labels—the same verbiage you’d find in the grocery aisle—have made their way into the industry.
Fashion brands have been creating collections of clothing made from recycled fabrics, bamboo-based fibres, deadstock fabric (and more), targetting consumers who are ready to spend the extra for a “greener” and “guilt-free” piece.
A growing number of brands have boarded the recycled polyester bandwagon to reduce the industry’s dependence on fossil fuels to create virgin polyester. Brands like H&M and Nike convert post-consumer plastic bottles into clothes; PET bottle waste is collected, melted, and spun into plastic yarns (also known as rPET). The yarns will then be used to create clothes for their sustainable collections, as illustrated in the image below.
Image source: H&M
This seems like a win-win situation, doesn’t it? It keeps waste out of landfills and oceans and could potentially reduce emissions by approximately 32% compared to virgin polyester.
Recycling is not synonymous with sustainability
But is recycling synonymous with sustainability? Unfortunately, the reality is far more complicated; recycling and reusing materials will not close the loop mainly because of two reasons: 1) the problem of microplastics persists, and 2) low-quality fast fashion garments.
Recycled polyesters shed as many fibres as virgin polyesters, says Harding-Rolls. As a result, microplastics are still inundating our oceans, which continue to threaten the our marine wildlife that consume them.
On top of that, the PET bottles would have an extended life if it remains in its “well-established, closed-loop recycling system, where they can be efficiently recycled at least ten times”. The fashion sector is moving PET bottles from the closed-loop system to a linear system; where low-quality and difficult to recycle fast fashion garments find themselves in the landfill after a few uses.
The way forward
As fashion trends continue to change at a frenetic pace, the industry is still producing a lot of clothing, whether sustainable or not. Current solutions in the fashion industry don’t address the basic crux of the problem, and that is the pressing need to produce and consume less. “The industry isn’t headed in the right direction,” says Michael Stanley-Jones, co-secretary of the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, “The urge to sell more and more, produce more and get consumers to buy more is still the DNA of the industry. Clothes have a short life space and end up in a garbage dump. That has to change.”
Brands have to stop approaching sustainability on a spectrum. A product that is less unsustainable doesn’t make it sustainable. Also, “sustainable” fashion doesn’t help to break the fast fashion reign, especially if brands continue to produce cheap garments (thanks to the race to the bottom in the apparel industry) that are essentially disposable, which will continue to fill up our landfills.
How we can help
It was overwhelming and stressful when I realised the ‘green’ products weren’t actually that green. What’s really good for the planet? What exactly can we wear, eat and do so that we don’t harm the environment? Sometimes, it can feel like the system traps us and sets us up to fail. What’s worse is that it misled us into thinking we were being kind to our planet.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not discouraging you from buying reusable products, clothes made from recycled materials, etc. If anything, it helps to cultivate a market for these products over their more exploitative and polluting alternatives.
However, we do have to be aware of how we consume. Do we really need the product? Can we commit to using the product? Are we willing to trade off some of the convenience to protect our planet?
These are some of the questions that will help you consume mindfully, or you can also check out our ‘Guide To Our Products’ and ‘Product Consideration Checklist’ on Instagram if you’re not sure whether the product suits your lifestyle.