Every day, more people learn about the damage plastic pollution is doing to our planet and our health and start searching for eco-friendly swaps they can make to reduce their impact. As a result, the market for sustainable products is projected to be more than £100bn in 2021.
Businesses are not blind to this trend and are keen to get on the bandwagon. Having more eco-friendly products to choose from is great for consumers; however, a major pitfall is the increasing prevalence of greenwashing.
What is greenwashing? Cambridge dictionary defines the verb ‘greenwash’ as
“to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.”
Greenwashing relies on our ignorance as consumers. We are often ignorant on what eco terms and packaging symbols mean. We are also ignorant about what really happens to the waste we produce. Without understanding these things, we can easily be fooled into believing something is better for the planet than it is.
So what can we do to stop ourselves falling for spurious marketing claims and weed out the greenwashed products?
> Look Deeper
Sad to say, the more I learn about eco-friendly product claims, the more skeptical I become. It is important to do some research before getting excited about the latest planet-saving product that’s shown up in your Facebook feed, as nothing can be taken at face value anymore.
Let’s take a look at one example: over Christmas, Sellotape marketed a product that claimed to be “a plant-based tape* with 0% plastic.” On the back of the box is printed:
*I contain 0% plastic. I am made with cellulose film and naturally based glue, both of which are derived from plant-based renewable resources.
Is it greenwashing? I suspect it is, and here's why: It's vague and there's no proof.
Cellulose is the building block of plant cell walls and also of bioplastics. Just being made from cellulose doesn't mean it's not plastic. I don't pretend to know everything about the range of films that can be made from cellulose, so I set out to learn more in case there are some cellulose films that are not bioplastics. Who better to ask than the manufacturer?
My first stop was the Sellotape website. It seems like a zero-plastic tape is something to shout from the rooftops, doesn't it? Unfortunately, the site only repeats the same information that is on the product package. There are no technical details about what type of cellulose film the tape is made from, how it is made, or how the consumer should dispose of it.
I decided to try their social media. These days many businesses communicate with customers via social channels and you can get direct answers quickly. Unfortunately..
No joy there, then. It occurred to me that Sellotape is now owned by Henkel, a German company. Perhaps after the acquisition the communication channels changed? A quick check on that, however, reveals the acquisition took place in 2002. The Henkel website still directs people to sellotape.co.uk for information about the brand.
Fortunately, there is an e-mail address printed on the box and their website, so I sent them a message.
I got a near instant reply saying my enquiry is important to them and a member of the Technical Services Department will contact me as soon as possible. Four weeks later, I have yet to hear from them.
> Make the most of the information you do have.. and pay attention to the information you don't
Information we have on the packaging:
made with cellulose film and naturally based glue, derived from plant-based renewable sources
box is made from recycled cardboard
box can be disposed of in the recycling bin
core can be disposed of in the recycling bin, but you must remove all tape before recycling
Information we don't have on the packaging:
how should the tape be disposed of
no mention of being biodegradable
no mention of being compostable, and no 'OK Home' or 'OK Industrial' stamps
no mention of certification to the EN13432 standard for composting
no details of the type of cellulose film it is made from
It is telling that this information is missing, isn't it? Most marketing greenwash includes claims of biodegradability at a minimum! This is because there are lots of plastics on the market that, given a few hundred years, will eventually biodegrade. It's the eco term with the least meaning out there, yet notably absent here. I was interested to learn that just as there are fossil-based plastics that do biodegrade, there are bioplastics that don't biodegrade.
Here's what I think this tape is: I think it is bioplastic. And that's still plastic, even if it is made from plant-based renewable resources. But due to the lack of a regulatory framework controlling the use of terms like 'zero plastic', 'sustainable', 'eco-friendly', etc., companies like Henkel can get away with greenwashing their products.
Why does the packaging list disposal directions for the box and core, but not for the tape? It makes sense that the tape must be removed from the core and not put into your recycling bin: bioplastics are not recyclable. In fact, if you do dispose of the tape in the recycling, chances are it will ruin an entire batch and even more plastic will go into landfill.
It's no secret that plant-based plastics aren't recyclable, but some are compostable. Yet Henkel doesn't provide any information about compostability, either at home or in industrial facilities. So what are we meant to do with this tape? In the absence of information, the only safe option is to put in with your normal rubbish that will go to landfill or be incinerated.
That's exactly the same way you should dispose of most plastic tapes.
Consumers who believe Sellotape's zero plastic claims are paying 260% more for a product that is no better for the environment than Sellotape original.
If that's not greenwashing, I don't know what is.
What are some examples of greenwashing that you've been noticing cropping up lately?
By the way, here is an example of what I would have expected to find on Sellotape's website.