Things aren’t always what they seem: Impacts of greenwashing

Photo of plastic bottles
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I’m sure we’ve all been there before: You’re in the grocery store, trying to pick out paper towels, trash bags or whatever else it is you need, and your eye is drawn to the packaging that boldly states “made with 50% more recycled materials” or something similar. Sure, the product may cost a dollar or two more, but you’re helping to save the environment, right? In our capitalistic society, it’s easy to get caught in schemes of greenwashing. Greenwashing is defined as “expressions of environmentalist concerns especially as a cover for products, policies or activities,” and it gets the best of us no matter how consciously we go about consuming.

One common example of greenwashing is found in the production and marketing of bioplastics — plastics that are made out of biomass sources such as vegetable fats or cornstarch. These are easy to find in Berkeley, where many restaurants and cafes have switched to using packaging materials marked as “biodegradable.” Following the labeling, consumers compost them, but this is where the problem lies. Many bioplastics require specific conditions to properly biodegrade, and they take three times as long to do so compared to food waste. Using these packaging materials may help avoid food waste because consumers just toss the whole thing in the compost (instead of the trash as they may have before), but at the end of the day, the plastic ends up sitting in compost piles — not much better than the masses of plastic sitting in our landfills and oceans today.

Other forms of greenwashing include production practices of sustainable goods that actually end up causing an increased amount of environmental harm, as well as claims that a product is made with recycled materials, when in fact this is the case only for the product’s packaging. In essence, it comes down to a scheme of false advertising targeted toward environmentally-conscious consumers, and therefore it becomes difficult for even the most cognizant individuals to avoid getting caught in the trap. 

So what can we do about it? Part of the answer lies in doing our due diligence as consumers. Websites such as Good On You rate brands based on how they treat their workers, the environment and animals, and can therefore provide more insight than a product’s packaging or a company’s advertisement might. Berkeley offers plenty of courses and DeCals that teach you to be a more conscious consumer as well. But the problem is larger than any one consumer’s actions, so the solution must be as well. The circular economy model advocates for a shift by businesses, corporations and individuals to production and consumption methods that eliminates waste. Instead of following a linear model — in which resources are extracted, used and thrown away — as we do now, within the circular economy products are designed to be “made again” and the system is powered by renewable energy. It’s thinking like this, and changes made on the structural level, that will pull us out of the trap of greenwashing and lead us toward truly sustainable consumption habits.

Beatrice Aronson is the blog editor. Contact her at [email protected].