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Are we being hoodwinked by the sustainability buzzwords?

by | Feb 3, 2020

As we become more aware of climate change and our role in protecting the environment, we’re seeing more companies produce products dubbed ‘ethical’ and ‘eco-friendly.’ But is this authentic or are smart marketeers adapting their messaging to a new wave of consumerism? How can we identify greenwashing?

The promotion lie

Or let’s call it greenwashing.  ‘Sustainable’ and other eco-terms are the latest marketing buzzwords used to sell products. Without tweaking the input materials or processes employed, many brands are greenwashing packaging and adjusting their brand language in order to capture or engage with the growing green market. Smart promotional tactics can give you the illusion that you’re doing good while shopping, inducing positive associations and feelings in consumers. This emotional rush after supposedly shopping for good will have you repeat buying these products, developing continued consumer relations and ensuring future profits. Are profit-seekers manipulating this new wave of consumers who are concerned with pressing, real-world issues?  How often are we under the influence of greenwashing?

The pricing paradox

You would have noticed this already: brands charge higher prices for healthier or more sustainable options, making them economically inaccessible to the general public. Because the sustainable consumer market is relatively new and growing in size, we have yet to see whether prices will decrease or stabilise over time. Brands argue that the prices are high because of higher resource costs, lower demand for sustainable products, and research and development costs. While these are all valid points, I am concerned that they are using high pricing to position themselves as luxury brands. I’m worried that conflating the concepts of luxury and sustainability will lead to sustainable products remaining unaffordable. This will perpetuate price barriers as well as perceptions of elitism and exclusion in relation to environmental sustainability. Surely, if a brand’s intention is to ensure the survival of the people and the planet, then they should be driven to make the products as affordable and as accessible as possible?

The quality myth

Focusing specifically on fashion, there seems to be a general misconception that sustainable clothes are more expensive because they are longer-lasting, better quality and consequently, will need to be replaced less often. I have found this to be untrue. The quality of sustainable brands I have tried is often indistinguishable from that of fast fashion brands. There needs to be increased evidence from brands that quality is of a higher standard. If they truly believe that their products are longer-lasting, more of them should follow the lead of Patagonia which encourages less consumption and offers mending and restoration services to their consumers.

The invisible processes

Another point of contention is the focus on materials and ingredients. More brands should be talking about how they evaluate their manufacturing and distribution processes. We tend to assume that vegan food is environmentally friendly. While it may be beneficial to reduce your meat and dairy consumption, various vegan products are highly processed. What do these processes involve? What is the origin of the ingredients? How many carbon miles did it take to transport these ingredients? Do these hidden costs offset the environmental benefits of buying eco-conscious products? As consumers, we need to push for increased transparency from businesses, and educate ourselves about the processes and distribution channels employed to produce what we consume.

I would like brands to make their ‘ethical’ or ‘environmentally friendly’ goods or services accessible. The entire value chain should be sustainable. Both products and processes must be aligned with the sustainability buzzwords instead of using them for marketing, inducing and manipulating consumers into feeling that they are contributing towards the ‘greater good’.

The big question for consumers is how can we, as individuals, affect actual long-lasting environmental change? I believe that the answer to this question is simple: we need to start asking more questions. We live in a customer-centric world. Brands respond and adapt to consumer needs and wants in order to survive and prosper. This means that, as consumers, the power is in our hands. We need to push for increased transparency and price accessibility from companies. We need educate ourselves in order to make informed decisions about how and why we consume. Most importantly, we need to consume less.

Image: Velizar Ivanov / Unsplash 

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