The Underbelly of the Sustainability Business: Are Leaders Thinking and Doing Right?

Over the past decade, shoppers have been moving towards more sustainability-conscious purchases. This is largely due to a growing awareness of the consequences of consumerism on the environment. According to a recent online survey of consumers from 60 different countries, 81% of respondents said that they consider the potential environmental impact in their willingness to buy a product.1 With a growing demand for sustainable consumerism, businesses are responding by releasing ‘green’ products and services that feed into the altruistic soul of their customers. The shelves of our supermarkets are ever-increasingly laden with alternatives to plastic. Corporations are pledging to source more environmentally-friendly material in their products. This is all good news, right? Should this not be a cause for celebration that we are now able to easily live without focusing on the burden of harming the environment? If only it was that simple.

Despite the noble efforts of many shoppers to reduce their environmental impact, the expected benefits are often much smaller than expected. In fact, studies have shown that the resulting footprint of consumers who believe they are making responsible purchases do not actually change much. This gap between environmentally-friendly behaviour with actual impact is known as the Behaviour Impact Gap (BIG) problem 2. So, yes, the sustainability market is expanding. Unfortunately, the reality of the products offered by the industry is not always as it seems.

As many buyers happily purchase items advertised as environmentally-friendly, there lies a bigger picture behind the ‘green’ labelling and marketing campaigns. What is often missed from the story is the actual environmental impact of the item throughout its history, not just when it reaches our stores. It is not enough to say something is better because it’s biodegradable or uses fewer materials for production. Every detail needs to be examined to aptly capture its actual environmental footprint. This process is called the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which considers a range of factors for the development of a product, including manufacturing, transportation, energy consumption, raw materials and eventual disposal. When conducted, it’s often discovered that our favourite conscious-free products are actually more harmful to the environment than we intended.

Some misinformed, ‘eco-friendly’ examples include:


Reusable Bags

There is an almost universal consensus on the detrimental effects that single-use plastic has on our global system. These non-biodegradable products are quickly filling up our land and marine environment, which seriously endangers the ecology of these spaces. Wildlife often chokes on or consume disposal plastic bags. Plus, plastics do not decompose. Instead, they will break down into microplastics, inadvertently contaminating our soil, water and, eventually, our food supply. So, the decision to ban plastic bags in many regions has been a valiant effort. More and more shoppers are now bringing along reusable bags when they head to the market, proudly playing their part in environmental conservation.

While the utilisation of reusable bags is definitely a critical factor in keeping plastic safely away from our beloved wildlife, many are unaware of the actual environmental impact of these products. Shoppers have to understand how these ‘eco-friendly’ bags are made, as well as how to fully utilise them to properly cancel out the environmental impact of plastic bags. As reusable bags are generally studier, the manufacturing process may leave a greater environmental impact than plastic bags. This is largely due to the way the source material of these bags is grown and processed. For example, despite being a renewable material, the production of cotton consumes large amounts of water, energy, pesticides and fertilizers.

According to an LCA conducted by Denmark’s Ministry of Environment and Food in 2018, when marine litter was taken out of the equation, single-use plastic bags have the least environmental impact among all shopping bag materials. However, it is important not to downplay the scale of the problem that plastic litter plays on the environment. The point is that other options also come with their own environmental baggage (excuse the pun). The study determined that to properly cancel out the environmental impact of single-use plastics, we’ll need to monitor the number of times each reusable bag is used – polypropylene bags and paper bags should be used 37 and 43 times respectively, while cotton bags need to be used a whopping 7,100 times! 3

Therefore, to make a truly informed decision on reducing our footprint when buying a shopping bag, all considerations must be taken into account. Even if buyers choose the most ecologically-friendly material, other factors also come into play in its overall footprint. For instance, the location of production determines the greenhouse gas emissions related to transporting the items, while printing designs on the bag come with the significant environmental burden of using ink. It would be best to choose a bag made from recyclable materials that do not have any printing or decorations. Additionally, regardless of the type of bag, it’s crucial that we use it as many times as humanly possible. When the time comes to finally retire the bag, do not allow your deceased companion to become litter. Give it the right send off by recycling or repurposing the bag.


Metal Straws

The next victim on the agenda of solving the global plastic problem was plastic straws. Who could forget the horrifying video of a straw stuck inside the bleeding nostril of a turtle?  It’s likely that this image was what pushed many to move away from using plastic straws towards more reusable options. While there are many choices available, many are opting to buy metal straws in hopes to reduce their environmental footprint.

Since the conversion to reusable straws is a relatively recent movement (compared to its plastic bag counterpart), it is trickier to determine the environmental impact of metal straws as its LCA has yet to be conducted. However, just by considering the processes involved in steel production alone, we can get an idea of the product’s actual role in environmental degradation. Mining practices used to produce steel often consume significant amounts of energy and resources, while also releasing harmful substances, such as toxic air emissions, wastewater contaminants and hazardous wastes, into the natural environment.

After the processes used to produce the metal straw is completed, we can consider the other details involved in its supply chain. The packaging and transportation element of its distribution plays its own role in carbon and waste production. For instance, it’s a common practice for people to buy their reusable straws online, often from international vendors, thus getting their items shipped directly to their doorstep. This unintentionally adds to 20% of marine litter associated with international shipping 4, as well as more than 2.6% to global carbon dioxide emissions 5.

The best option for most would be to just forgo the use of straws altogether. But it would be unfair to discount those with medical or dental-related issues that make this a complicated scenario. Plus, there are drinks that require straws to access its sweet nectar, such as coconuts and bubble tea. For those, it is better to opt for other, more ecologically-friendly straws, such as bamboo, papaya or even glass straws. Although, keep in mind that there hasn’t been a study on their life cycle either!


Sustainable Fashion

As one of the world’s most polluting industries, the fashion industry does not have a strong history of sustainable practices. The annual gas emissions released from textile production is more than the emissions associated with international flights and maritime shipping combined 6.Producing cotton is also resource heavy, using up to 20,000 litres of water to produce a measly 1kg worth of cotton (equivalent to one t-shirt and a pair of jeans). Additionally, the heavy chemicals used in creating our garments during processes such as dyeing and bleaching causes tremendous water and soil degradation.

In response to the growing concern of their environmental impact, many brands and retailers are making concerted efforts in minimising their footprint. For example, they’ve adopted new technology and initiatives that greatly decrease the water, energy and chemical consumption of production by up to 50%. There is also more of an effort in getting material from responsible sources, such as bamboo and upcycled fabric.

With significant progress being made in minimising the environmental impact of garment production, many brands are proudly labelling themselves as green fashion. Unfortunately, despite increased responsibility from the sector, it is predicted that the fashion industry will triple its consumption of resources by 2050 6. This prediction is due to the growing appetite for fashion. The rise in fast fashion is shortening the life cycle of garments. As consumers chase the latest clothing trends, the rate of clothing disposal is rapidly increasing. In fact, in the UK alone, it is estimated that $38 billion worth of clothing currently kept in closets have not actually been worn for over a year 7. With this lack of consumption control, the ecological impact of frequently buying new clothes surpasses the desired effect of purchasing from sustainable retailers.

The apparent ‘sustainable’ sources of material are also questionable at best. For instance, bamboo is often marketed as the greenest option for our fabric, due to its ability to grow quickly; it is naturally pest-resistant; it rebuilds eroded soil; and the stems shoot right back up after harvesting. This means that bamboo is able to be grown without any chemical fertilisers and pesticides 8. Due to their supposed sustainable properties, the demand for bamboo fabric have been rising. Unfortunately, this means that farmers in China, the only country that commercially grows the crop, have been succumbing to unsustainable practices to maximise their yields and profits. Firstly, they are choosing to monocrop bamboo. This inadvertently decreases the biodiversity in the area while also exposing it to pests, thus making pesticide necessary. Furthermore, farmers are actively clearing existing forestland to make room for their bamboo plantations.

To truly minimise our footprint, the first step is to reduce our consumption of new clothes. Fight off those desires to be trendy. We do not need to look as if we’ve stepped off from the pages of a magazine. When we need to really buy clothes, opt for preloved or recycled clothing, then use these clothes for as long as possible. If the garments become damaged, then, like any other product, we should either repair, recycle or upcycle. These choices may make us seem less ‘in-fashion’, but at least we’re fighting a good fight.