Are all the zero waste products you buy really “green”? Can you trust that the eco-friendly products you have at home are the most environmentally and socially responsible?
No doubt you already know who Javier is, our co-founder. But what you may not know is that he is responsible for deciding which products are included in our range. He is the person who makes sure that everything we sell at Sinplástico meets the strictest environmental and socially responsible standards.
He has seen tens of thousands of eco products, from soaps to kitchen utensils, and he knows pretty much immediately whether a product is truly green and responsible or whether it just looks like it is.
Therefore, we have decided to interview him, asking him to share his tricks of the trade so that you too can learn how to identify those fake eco products and thereby make better, more informed purchasing decisions.
We are sure that after reading this you will no longer fall into the greenwashing traps and you will be able to decipher the half truths that are hiding behind some so-called “eco-friendly” products.
Are you ready? Let’s get reading…
Let’s begin with understanding the concept. What are fake eco-friendly products?
Greenwashing is the desire for our capitalist style economy to use whatever it can to sell lots of products and make a profit. To do so, companies follow trends and fashions, such as the eco-friendly green movement, and use this to make their products look and sound eco-friendly when really they are just normal (or even harmful) products dressed-up as sustainable and green. Fake eco products are items that only take into account one single feature of what an environmentally friendly product should be.
Generally speaking, they focus on presence of a specific ingredient, ignoring where those ingredients come from, how they have been produced, the container in which they are manufactured, how they are transported and stored, the product packaging, the working conditions of the people who produce the products, the need for this product to exist, the use that it will be given, the energy consumed in its production, and, very importantly, the waste it leaves behind and the ability for this to be composted and/or recycled at the end of the product’s life.
Could you give us some examples of fake eco-friendly products that we could have purchased thinking that we were doing the planet a favour, when in reality, without wanting to, we were doing the opposite?
Of course, I’ll give you a few:
A good example are those badly named bio-plastics. Firstly, because they use the prefix “bio” to trick us into thinking that they are natural, and that they come directly from nature. Secondly, because substituting petroleum as the base oil for another that is vegetable-based (corn, soy, rice…) does NOT prevent the need for additives that can harm our health and the natural world. In addition, this raw material encourages deforestation and the use of extensive single-crop farms to produce single use throw-away items instead of using that land to feed the world’s population. Thirdly, because they are not biodegradable. They are not even compostable, in the sense that this word is commonly understood: a substance that rots and helps to feed and nourish other living beings.
Another example are the products that are advertised and promoted using the word “FREE” (coming from a business called “plastic-free”): paraben-free, sugar-free, BPA-free, palm oil-free… but then they don’t specify what substitute is used instead of this ingredient and they often don’t show us the INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients), that is to say, the full and complete list of ingredients. As green consumers we are interested to know what each product contains, not just what it does NOT contain.
I would also include those natural and even sustainable products that travel 1000s of kilometres, when more local alternatives exist. There are more and more companies that travel the world importing natural exotic products, when there are alternatives available at our doorstep.
It also makes no sense to me that eco-friendly products are over-packaged or come in plastic jars or containers because whatever is good or beneficial about that product is lost or even contaminated when it comes in contact with its plastic packaging.
Or those that look like they meet a zero waste need using reusable materials but are not organic. An example of this would be the plastic/synthetic mesh bags for shopping in bulk. They are sold as reusable, washable, even kilometre zero (locally produced). But, aren’t all plastic bags reusable, washable and possibly km0 too? Why would we want to sell a product, and convince people that it is eco-friendly, when it causes the same environmental problem as any other plastic bag?
But the ones that top it all off for me, are the “shops” that don’t actually hold any stock but instead advertise eco-friendly products and all they do is act as middlemen to buy on your behalf from online suppliers such as Aliexpress, Amazon and others, who are the ones that send you the product in the end.
Now that many more companies are springing up with a green focus than before when Sinplástico first started, is it more difficult to differentiate these types of products?
Back when we started, we were European pioneers offering plastic-free alternatives and promoting a zero waste culture. Our project came about out of necessity as it was very difficult at the time to find products that were plastic-free. Now, we can thankfully see that what was once weird and freaky has become trendy and fashionable. Everyday there are more zero waste products and alternatives, and this leads to more shops and businesses that bring these products to the general public. This makes us very happy.
Having said that, and in addition to what I said earlier about fake green products, our main job is no longer to find alternatives but instead to help tell them apart, identifying those that are truly eco-friendly and highlighting those that are fake and are just looking to greenwash us.
“Our main job is no longer to find alternatives but instead to help tell them apart, identifying those that are truly eco-friendly and highlighting those that are fake and are just looking to greenwash us.”
There are already too many companies that just look to create a brand with attractive packaging and then fill it up with trendy products that are made in Asia without any need for innovation. Sometimes they don’t even really know who makes their products. It is not the best option in environmental terms but it can also lead to a lot of confusion.
A good example of this are brands that sell certain types of bamboo toothbrushes, vegan dental floss, stainless steel water bottles, straws and Binchotan water filters.
Let me explain what I mean, all bamboo toothbrushes are made by the same type of company in China, and some brands lie when they tell their customers that they are 100% natural, plastic-free and compostable. They are a very worthy vegan alternative to wooden toothbrushes made with animal-based bristles (that are 100% biodegradable) and they really do save a lot of plastic, however the bristles of these bamboo toothbrushes are nylon and therefore you cannot say that they care completely free of plastic and compostable – it’s simply not true. There are even brands that sell them in plastic-coated cardboard boxes or wrapped in a “fabric” sleeve that is in reality plastic. Given this situation, we are very careful when specifying the details of these types of products. The difficulty is knowing who looks after the details and keeps their customers well-informed.
And what can we say about those stainless steel bottles that are made will very low quality steel and/or are decorated with plastic-coated designs. Without even mentioning all those that use plastic lids that are in contact with your drinking water, even Thermoses, when there are high quality stainless steel bottles available, manufactured in close partnership and with caps made from medical-grade silicone originating from silica.
The same sort of thing happens when it comes to stainless steel straws, many are made of low quality steel and come in plastic packaging, or the vegan dental floss which contains PLA (polylactic acid), another type of bioplastic that is sold as 100% natural and compostable. How about the Binchotan water filters that are not responsibly made and that come from places such as Laos and Vietnam and contribute to the destruction and burning of tropical forests in these areas. (Note from Sinplástico: our Binchotan filters come from responsibly managed forests in Japan).There are many examples.
The problem is not these products, they do their job, but instead the incorrect and/or misleading information that goes with them and does not distinguish between what is well made, good for our health and the environment and what is not.
Are fake eco-friendly products just a more sophisticated form of greenwashing?
I would look to distinguish between products from regular brands, that have simply added colours and key words to their packaging and advertising, and those created by new brands that have appeared (whether they are privately owned, small companies or large corporations) looking to fill an eco-friendly gap in the market.
The first type can mislead the naive and less aware consumer because as we already know today they colour their products green and tomorrow they will follow the next fashion.
The second type are even more concerning because it is already difficult enough to make people aware and convince them to change their purchasing habits, and now to have to tell them that what they thought was doing some good is in reality a scam or at best a half truth. That feels really bad and provokes people to throw in the towel. Being half or somewhat informed, no matter how good your intentions, is a big mistake in the end.
“It is already difficult enough to make people aware and convince them to change their purchasing habits, and now to have to tell them that what they thought was doing some good is in reality a scam or at best a half truth.”
If we are realistic, 100% eco-friendly products simply don’t exist, because all products have an environmental footprint. So, where is that line?
It is true that humans have been creating more or less harmful waste since we discovered how to light a fire and began making our own products. It is also true that the current system of consumption that rewards single-use disposable products has given us a false sense of wealth and luxury that previously only a few could afford. This has been greatly helped along by the invention and use of plastic.
The line or limit is based on what nature decides is a sustainable speed, this is the basic principle of the ecological movement: less is more, buy local, natural products that encourage biodiversity, avoid single-crop farming and over exploitation, avoid the abusive use of chemistry, avoid packaging or over-packaging, don’t generate waste that cannot be reused, control the use of energy…
What should we look out for in order to be able to differentiate between fake green products and truly eco-friendly options?
We start our talks on the topic by saying that the best way to start living a zero waste lifestyle is to stop and think: Do I really need this product? Will it contribute something to my life that cannot be done in a different way with something I already have? For example, they sell socks for avocados, that are manufactured with natural fibres and are km0 and made by companies that provide work placement opportunities, but I would not call them eco-friendly because they are unnecessary, avocados don’t need socks (or scarves for that matter).
We should also pay attention to the obsolescence of any product we buy: Is the material durable and hardwearing? Is the product made to last? Can it be repaired? Does it have spare parts? Is it refillable?
Of course we should make sure it is not a single-use product. But we should also recognise whether it is designed only for one single function. This happens a lot with kitchen utensils these days.
It is also a good idea to take into account the product packaging. A good example is bottled water. It doesn’t matter whether it comes in a plastic bottle, an aluminium can, or even a glass bottle. From a health point of view a glass bottle would be better, however from an environmental angle it’s much of a muchness. The important thing is not to purchase packaged water, because it is a single-use product that requires energy, generates waste and provides us with a basic product at an extortionate price.
Another aspect to keep in mind is that of recycled products. Making a t-shirt, bag or seat with mixed plastics, even if they come from the sea, does not make them eco-friendly. Recycling does not give a second life to a material, if that material by being mixed, will not have a third or a fourth life, which is known as a circular economy. Also, when talking about t-shirts made from recycled plastic, every time they are washed millions of microplastic fibres end up going down the drain. As they are not caught by our water processing plants, they end up in the ocean.
This way we need to pay attention to the details. An important example is what happened to Greenpeace, they created some cotton bags for their #noplastic campaign, however the fabric also contained a portion of polyester, polyester labels and even the fabric dye was plastic-based ink. No one is immune from making mistakes and therefore we need to pay close attention.
Do you have any other tips when it comes to buying in a truly ecological way?
It is important not to feel overwhelmed or guilty all the time. We all know we live in a consumption driven society and sometimes we find ourselves in situations that are not in line with our way of thinking. That’s when we just need to smile, and think to ourselves we’ll do better next time.
In Basque we say Jo-ta-ke irabazi arte, that means try and try again until at last you succeed. The important thing is to create a lifestyle and buying habits that are in line with your beliefs. Take small steps, one at a time, learning everyday. Once we have internalised a way of behaving and living with less or no waste everything will be more eco-friendly, easier, more comfortable, healthier and possibly even cheaper.
Thank you to Javier for this valuable lesson.
Did you like this article? If so, you will just love the first in the new series “The whole truth” that we have published this Plastic-free July:
Will you tell us what you think in the comments?
What did you think about this article? Do you agree with Javier? Did it make you think? Do you have any doubt or questions?
We can’t wait to read what you have to say (and answer any questions) in the comments below.