Introducing... Now that's what I call Green!

The first episode of my brand new podcast... all things sustainability!

I started a new podcast... because sometimes I want to talk more than just business right?! So 'Now, That's What I Call Green' is all about sustainability, without the bullshit.

You can listen to episode one here:
Or read the transcription below.

"Kia ora Eco Warriors. Oh no, I don't know how I feel about Eco Warriors. Anyway, welcome to Now That's What I Call Green, where we dig deep into the roots of sustainability. I'm Brianne West. You may know me as the founder and former CEO of Ethique. Well, now I host a podcast telling you all about my passions and excitement for the wonderful natural world we live in. And show you how to navigate the crazy world of sustainability. So today we're peeling back the layers on greenwashing. Have you ever bought something because it said eco-friendly or healthy on the label, only to find out that actually it's not so green after all. Well, yeah, we've all been there, so let's compost those misconceptions and unearth the real dirt on greenwashing. And guys, if you've not listened to a podcast from me before, I really like puns.

Let's kick things off with why greenwashing matters. Well, it's not just about being mislead into buying a product that's not as eco-friendly you thought. It's about the collective impact of these choices. When we fall for greenwashing, we are inadvertently supporting practices that are harmful to the environment and to people, often diverting funds from truly sustainable sources. This slows down the progress we could be making towards a way more sustainable future. And it erodes trust in the brand that deceives you, but in this whole idea of sustainable living, if people and brands are consistently lying to you, eventually you're going to just not care at all.

And we can't afford that kind of cynicism if we're going to tackle the environmental challenges ahead because let's face it, whether we like it or not, it's a pretty grim place. And finally, there's another layer as to why this actually matters, but studies have shown that people are more likely to buy, and buy more of a product if they believe it's sustainable or ethical or whatever. It's called conscious consumerism, and it's a double-edged sword.

On one hand, it's fantastic that people want to make choices that are better for the planet, but on the other hand, if what they're buying isn't actually sustainable, then that's a problem. We're not just making one wrong choice, we're making it repeatedly and in larger quantities. This amplifies the negative impact on the environment and that's why it is crucial for us to be vigilant about greenwashing. And I'm going to take a walk down memory lane because I find this fascinating. Greenwashing is something that has come into our consciousness relatively recently, but it's been going on for a very long time. Environmentalism has been around for decades obviously. People caring about the pain, it's hardly a new thing. What is slightly newer is corporates taking advantage of it, but the concept of greenwashing has its roots, and that's kind of a pun in the environmental movement that gained traction in the late sixties, early seventies.

So there was a book by the author Rachel Carson, it's called Silent Spring, published in 1962. The book was an absolute game changer because it exposed the harmful effects of pesticides like DDT on wildlife and human health. Before Silent Spring it was considered a miracle chemical and used as widely as possible, and even in household products, nobody knew the realities behind what it was doing to our planet and to people on it. Her book led to a nationwide ban on DDT and was actually a catalyst for the modern environmental movement. It even inspired the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. That's a hell of a book. I haven't read that yet. It's on my to read list. I don't know about you, but my to read list is just... I don't know how I'll ever get through it.

If we fast-forward to the 1980s, we see one of the earliest instances of greenwashing, and this is of course an oil company. You'll see a theme shortly. They had a people do campaign, so this campaign showcased Chevron employees protecting various wildlife habitats, how ironic. Because at the same time, Chevron was facing several lawsuits for oil spills and other environmental degradation. Not to mention of course that oil companies knew about the coming climate crisis. In 1989, Chevron was responsible for a spill in Richmond, California that released about 400,000 gallons of oil into the San Fran Bay, and yet their ads would have you believe they were champions of the environment. In 1991, DuPont a chemical company that you will definitely have products from in your house, they announced they were building double hulled oil tankers, which is exactly as it sounds, and it was a significant environmental advantage they had taken out of the goodness of their heart.

But it was bull shit because they were already mandated by new regulations. They were capitalizing on what they had to do legally and making it a selling point. They were also under scrutiny for contaminating soil and water with other harmful chemicals, and in fact, they were one of the largest producers of CFCs, which of course led to the depletion of the ozone layer and were eventually banned under the Montreal Protocol. And delving into banning CFCs, that is something that gives me hope about our climate crisis because that is probably the greatest example of a time when the whole world came together and said, "This is a serious problem, let's stop making and selling these bloody things." I am sure that at some point we will do that with fossil fuels because if we don't... Well, anyway, as consumers became more eco-conscious certification started to come to the fore.

So Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC as you may have seen it, they promoted responsible forestry, but some companies started taking advantage of this. So this was in the late 1990s, 2000s when companies started creating their own logos, confusing consumers on purpose. The same thing happened with the USDA organic certification. Some products labeled organic did not meet any criteria and again, deliberately confusing consumers. In 2002, not very long ago, a study found that 23% of so-called organic produce violated federal pesticide standards. That's almost one in four. Finally, a little bit close to the present. There's a few that you might be more aware of. H&M, yes, H&M, one of my favorites promoted its conscious collection as a sustainable fashion line that you should buy. Critics got pretty cross because they argued that the fast fashion model in general is inherently unsustainable due to overproduction and massive waste.

To give you an idea, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and shipping combined, and yet people get pissy with travel. Another example we'll all be familiar with is of course, Volkswagen's Clean Diesel campaign. They promoted diesel cars as low emission, but in 2015 it was revealed they had intentionally installed software to cheat emissions tests and that cost them about $30 billion in fines and vehicle recalls. Companies do this on purpose. Now finally, I'm going to talk about my favorite brand, who you will definitely have heard of and you'll have possibly seen some of my videos on TikTok about. They're under the spotlight for greenwashing, terrible labor practices and they're up there with one of the world's top polluters. They are the number one fast fashion brand, and their business model relies on mass producing cheap clothes that are apparently trendy in conditions that neither ethical or sustainable.

They were recently in the news yet again for sending influencers to some of their factories to show just how ethical and sustainable they really are. And yes, if you haven't guessed who they are yet, that's SHEIN. And in 2021, SHEIN launched an eco-friendly collection claiming to use sustainable materials like organic cotton. This made up the tiniest fraction of SHEIN's overall offerings, and there was no information on how the rest of the garment was made. Was the labor ethical? Of course it wasn't.

There were many, many questions left unanswered. They were so opaque about all of this. It wasn't funny, and here's why this sort of stuff matters and why people get so upset about it and why lawmakers are finally cracking down on corporate greenwashing. SHEIN's green claims lured conscious consumers into buying more thinking. They're making a responsible choice. But in reality, the impact of that purchasing, even their sustainable line, was incredibly detrimental to people and planet.

This is one of those things I get quite passionate about. Businesses can absolutely operate in a sustainable ethical manner that's still profitable. Ateak has proven it, Incredibles will prove it. Again, I knew numerous businesses that prove it is absolutely possible, but they don't want to because it's easier not to and it's cheaper not to in the short term. And so we want to avoid supporting companies like this, but it's hard to tell. How on earth are you supposed to spot greenwashing? Here are some of the things I look for. Number one is vague language. So brands often use terms like eco-friendly, green, or natural, and they don't provide any evidence. Now, a reason they don't provide any evidence is because none of that means anything. If a product is deemed as eco-friendly, you can immediately say that's a lie because there is no such product really that is good for the planet.

Everything we do has an impact. Now the business can try and negate that impact, minimize that impact, make the product as regenerative as possible, but it still has an impact. So therefore it can't really be eco-friendly. There are some exceptions. Green or natural, same difference. Natural doesn't mean sustainable, it doesn't mean safe. I covered that in last week's episode. And green, what does that even mean? Unless it's literally green, but it could then be green paint and that's not good for the planet. But for example, a popular cleaning brand labels their products as eco-friendly, but they package their products in plastic. How can that possibly be eco-friendly? Number two is this hidden trade-offs so they'll often concentrate on one small attribute about their product, like their label might have 100% recycled paper on it, but the bottle, the label is stuck on it's un-recyclable plastic, sort of similar as the overemphasis on one positive.

So they'll highlight one positive while ignoring all their large impacts. This is one actually coffee companies do a lot, so they'll promote that they have compostable cups, but they don't talk about any of the other bad stuff that they do. Or they don't address the fact that their cups are only industrially compostable, so they probably won't ever be processed. A national airline I won't name uses cups made "from plants" which is completely irrelevant as bioplastics are no different and are no more biodegradable than conventional plastic. Number four is unproven claims. These are just environmental claims that can't be substantiated. An example I use here that might annoy some people is the idea of things being reef safe. There is very little evidence to back up that products can be reef safe even if they don't contain the things that governments have vilified as being harmful to corals.

The reason I say this is one, is all sunscreen ingredients are harmful to corals. And yes, that includes zinc oxide regardless of particle size because zinc oxide donate zinc ions in water, and it's the zinc ions which cause the problem. That is an oversimplification in the extreme, but physical sunscreens are just as harmful to the coral. The other reason is most of the other ingredients in your cosmetics have never been tested as to whether they're dangerous to corals. But the third thing is it doesn't matter, because sunscreens and all your other cosmetics that you wear in the ocean do not even factor in the top 10 of the things that are harmful to our oceans. Because the concentrations that were tested in those studies will never actually happen in reality, even in the Stillest Bay with 100s of swimmers, you would really struggle to have enough cosmetic deposition in the water to cause an issue. So reefs safe is really just a marketing scam and it's something that can't really be proved.

Finally, we have irrelevant claims. This is one I always find quite funny, but it's annoying. And someone actually once pointed out to me, I think she was looking at hairspray in the supermarket and she said, "Oh, this one says CFC free." And I was like, "Well, yeah, because CFCs have been illegal for about 20 years." I don't think I'm underestimating that. Companies say these things that they can't even use anyway because it makes them look good. Another one is a conditioner or a moisturizer which will say sulfate free, but sulfates are only present in products that foam because that's what sulfates do. You wouldn't put sodium laurel sulfate in a face moisturizer anyway. Well, most of the time, in some instance you might do, but anyway, off-topic.

But if we flip the coin and have a look at this from a business perspective, because I'm presuming that some of you listening are entrepreneurs and founders based on who my normal audience is, not all companies engage in doing this maliciously. Some might actually believe that they're doing the right thing, and I suspect this happens a lot because I get a lot of people asking me, "Oh, should I use this bioplastic." Or, "Am I better off using recycled plastic or combustible card." Because it's complicated. It's so complicated. It is something I'm trying to address on business with better. But for all of the videos I can talk about, there are still 100 different options that business owners can take. However, if you're going to make claims, ignorance is not an excuse. If you're going to make a claim about something, you need to ensure that it's correct. And I totally get how hard that is.

So don't make the claims until you're sure, that's how you avoid greenwashing. Be transparent. If you're making an environmental claim, make sure you back it up with facts and figures and ideally third party certifications. I understand there isn't always a certification to cover something, so try and get something verified independently by an LCA, so a lifecycle analysis or whatever and be transparent about that journey. You need to be specific. Vague claims like eco-friendly or natural are not only unhelpful, but they're super misleading. Specify what makes your business or product sustainable. This is really hard to avoid and your marketing department will nag you to death about it, but you've got to hold firm because it is you that'll be on the gun, and it is you the consumers will get upset at if you mislead them.

Three, you should take a holistic approach. Sustainability isn't one feature of your product. It's not just the packaging, it's not just the disposal. It's also the manufacturer and the supply chain. Consider your entire lifecycle from production to disposal. That doesn't mean you have to be perfect before you say anything, but it does mean you don't say, "Our product's eco-friendly because you have compostable packaging." It means you say, "Our packaging is home compostable, and we are working on the rest of it because we understand that sustainability is a journey." Number four, educate your consumers. You probably have a platform. Use it to educate consumers about what makes your product sustainable and why that matters. Again, bring them along the journey, it builds trust. And then you won't be in that awkward position where someone says, "But what about this?" And you're like, "Well, we don't really care about that because it's hard to sell."

Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. That sounds like a really [inaudible 00:13:34] saying you'd read in a Hallmark card, but that's true. So you always need to look for ways to improve and be open about your progress. Ateak even is not perfect by any stretch. There are always things we can do better. And finally, if you want to avoid falling for greenwashing, some quickfire tips. Look for third party certifications like FSC or Certified Home Compostible, or for sourcing and labor something like Fair Trade. And watch out for those in-house certifications. Companies create themselves. If you've got the spare time, look into the certification because some are definitely more robust than others. And no, B Corp is not perfection. It has some great points, but it does not mean the company is perfect. Number two is do your own research. Again, it requires a bit of time, but just remember, don't rely on what's the label and they vaguer of the claim, the more research you should do.

And then finally ask questions. Reach out to companies and ask them to substantiate their claims. If they're real, they won't mind. And even better yet, you can say, "Hey, I love that you're doing this, but I'd love you to look at doing this too." And you can encourage them to do better in other areas. Because remember, one of the most powerful things you could do is vote with your dollar. Companies won't continue to pollute if we boycott them. Well, that is enough ranting for today, I think. I hope you have leafed through some valuable insights that you can plant in your daily life. Okay, I'm sorry. That's enough puns for today. Remember, it's all about making informed choices. It's progress, not perfection.

And to anyone out there who says to you, "How can you be environmentally friendly when you drove here in a car." Or, "But I saw you with a plastic bottle," ignore them. The more we turn on one another for not being perfect, because perfect in this system is impossible, the more we let companies get away with. At the end of the day, yes, individual action matters, but government and corporate need to change for us to change things at scale. Again, progress not perfection. Thank you for tuning in. I'll see you next fortnight for another episode. We will continue to root out the truth in sustainability, and until then, keep it clean and green. Thank you. This has been, Now That's What I Call Green."