We are messing up our earth; there is absolutely no doubt that this is true. From microplastic contamination to the planet’s warming, human contributions are the leading causes of discretionary destruction. To think otherwise is delusional.
The industrial revolution made expensive things inexpensive. For example, the invention of the power loom made cloth affordable, leading to less expensive clothing. However, the industrial revolution’s driving forces were expansion and profit, not human safety or environmental health. Initially, individual workers were sacrificed for growth, but now the entire planet is offered up.
Today, I’m writing about ecological misinformation and the practice of greenwashing, which is a marketing ploy used to sell products by making some things seem wrong for the planet, and others appear eco-friendly. Greenwashing is accomplished by manipulating facts and distorting the truth.
As consumers have been taught that utility devices like mobile phones and cars are status symbols that need to be regularly updated. We have been programmed that old is bad. Watch a home improvement show to witness how perfectly functional kitchens or baths are demolished and replaced. Do you have a stunning granite countertop? That’s old school, landfill it and buy a quartz one! Why? Because some guy on HGTV told you it was the thing to do.
At the same time, we are told false facts, making it difficult to sort through what is real and what is not. For example, there is no link between aluminum cookware and Alzheimer’s disease, and Teflon is entirely inert when used in standard cooking scenarios. Additionally, the main detergents in regular dish soaps are biodegradable. Yet, if you ask most people, they would say the opposite. So why are these falsehoods promulgated? Sometimes this is due to the illusory truth effect, and at other times false facts encourage consumers to replace their pots and pans or buy expensive eco-friendly products.
Are you aware that you would need to use a reusable cotton grocery bag at least 100 times before its environmental impact is less than a single-use plastic one? That number is a conservative estimate as some studies report that you would need to use the cotton bag 7000 times! I’m not supporting single-use plastic products; I’m illustrating that what appears to be simple on the surface can be much more complex when scrutinizing a claim.
Do you feel that you are helping the environment by driving an electric vehicle (EV)? You are, but the facts are more complicated than you may think. Due to their large lithium batteries, the manufacturing of an EV has a considerably larger environmental footprint than a gas-powered vehicle. In addition, most of the electricity in the US is produced by burning fossil fuels (61%), which creates greenhouse gasses. Over the car’s life, an EV will eventually have a lower environmental impact than a gas-run vehicle. However, the crossover point is at the 50,000-100,000 mile range. If you buy an EV with extended-range batteries, it will take longer for this crossover to occur. Due to this, some experts believe that hybrid vehicles may be better for the environment than full EVs.
How about food waste? Who wants to spend time and mess dealing with a composting bin when you can buy the $500 Lumi, a tabletop machine that can compost your food waste in 24 hours! That is amazing. It almost sounds too good to be true… well, because it is. Lumi claims that it uses groundbreaking technology, but multiple other devices have done the same thing in the past (the Zera, the Cloey, and the Tero, to name three). Does Lumi turn food waste and recyclable plastics into compost? NO. Lomi is a gadget that dehydrates and chops up bio waste into a pre-compostable material. So what do you do with that dried stuff? You can put it into your composting bin and turn it into dirt just like you would with any other composting waste, or you can throw it into the garbage just like you would toss out your other regular garbage.
It takes carbon-producing energy to make the plastic Lumi, and it takes greenhouse gas-producing electricity to run it. The pre-compostable material is just dried out regular bio-waste. The composting process will likely be slower than expected since the bacteria and critters that do the actual composting need water for their biological processes, which Lumi removes. Lumi is a garbage volume reduction system, basically a greenwashed garbage compactor. Slick commercials can’t change that reality. However, you can buy one and pat yourself on the back that you are at least thinking about doing something good.
Recycling is better than tossing items into a landfill. First, however, you have to make sure that you are recycling correctly. Items like paper and aluminum can be effectively recycled. Many communities have pickup programs, but it is critical to follow their recycling guidelines. Wrong items can contaminate and plug up the recycling system. For example, paper is a good candidate for recycling, but greasy cardboard pizza boxes are not.
In the 1980s, the plastic industry created the Council for Solid Waste Solutions, which lobbied for recycling options to avoid anti-plastic laws proposed in the1970s. This council was a PR effort as the plastic industry knew then (as it does now) that plastics cannot be effectively and efficiently recycled. Those little icons on the bottom of plastic containers are cute, but they don’t mean much. Imagine if anti-plastic legislation had been passed in the 1970s; perhaps we wouldn’t have state-sized islands of plastic garbage floating in our oceans.
When I decided to write this post, I thought it would be a reasonably straightforward process to research better products and practices for the environment. I was wrong. But why is this? Companies’ efforts to increase sales and stockholders’ demands for immediate profits have turned environmental consciousness into yet another marketing strategy. It doesn’t make any difference if a product is kinder to the environment; it is more important to make the consumer think that it is. This is accomplished in various ways, from using the color green on the packaging to adding buzzwords like “eco-friendly” to placing badges and stickers on products that proclaim meaningless or unsubstantiated facts. For instance, many products that formally contain the ozone-damaging chemicals CFSs now proudly proclaim that they are CFS-free on their labels. However, The use of CFCs is illegal in over 190 countries, including the US. This badging may make consumers think that a product is environmentally conscious, but such labeling is simply a marketing ploy.
Nestle is one of the world’s largest corporations and is an excellent example of how companies place profit over people. In the 1980s, Nestle heavily advertised their baby formulas in poor African nations, suggesting that they were better than mother’s milk by using extremely deceptive practices. African moms wanted what was best for their kids, but they couldn’t afford the expensive formula, so they diluted it. The result was malnutrition and the death of infants. These practices are now banned in many countries, but Nestle continues to utilize them in places that lack good legislation.
Nestle is also one of the leading manufacturers of single-use water bottles and other single-use plastic containers. We are all aware of the horrific and unnecessary environmental impact that these products pose. Nestle responded to increased consumer awareness by promoting recycling programs for plastics. However, this was a solution in advertising name only and has allowed Nestle to continue to sell these items. During a coastline cleanup in Malaysia, much of the plastic garbage on beaches was from Nestle companies. Let’s not forget that Nestle frequently uses resources in poor areas to their advantage. They can buy a tanker of municipal water for next to nothing, repackage it in plastic bottles and sell it at a 35% profit. The consumer gets to buy something that they could have gotten for free.
Nestle bought Nespresso, a coffee pod brewing system languishing far behind the Keurig brand. So Nestle launched an ad campaign for Nespresso, touting that its aluminum pods were more recyclable than the plastic Keurig capsules. They also announced that they had their own recycling centers to process the pods. Based on these claims, sales of the Nespresso soared. But were these efforts advertising hype or genuine concern for the environment? Only 5% of Nespresso pods are recycled, which means that 95% are not.
We are encouraged to use eco-friendly cleaning products with trendy names like Method, Mrs. Meyers, and Seventh Generation. But unfortunately, these brands are owned by giant corporations like Unilever and SC Johnson, companies that make the traditional consumer cleaning products that most use. In addition, these green products may have similar ingredients to non-green one. Sometimes, a brand may emphasize eliminating one group of chemicals, like phosphates, which have been banned in all home detergents since1993, while de-emphasizing the inclusion of other ingredients that environmentalists may consider suspect.
I watched one reputable reviewer who noted that she preferred Method dish soap to some of the other environmentally friendly brands because it cleaned just like regular dish soap. Why is that? Because its main cleaning ingredient is the detergent SLS, just like good ol’ Dawn. In addition, green cleaning products are typically packaged in small plastic containers. Multiple small containers use more plastic than larger single-volume vessels. Unfortunately, good advertising and pleasant fragrances make us imagine that these products are better, and we are duped into paying a premium price for that belief.
You may be buying organic foods because you don’t want to contaminate the environment with dangerous pesticides, but what about the fact that your purchase may have been transported thousands of miles on trucks that use diesel fuel while being packaged in plastic to preserve its freshness?
How about buying products only from environmentally ethical companies? Some companies pledge to be environmentally responsible but then subcontract their work to outside factories that are not.
Even the use of natural and sustainable fabrics can be environmentally damaging. For example, Argentina is one of the world’s largest wool producers; its wool industry uses non-indigenous sheep whose harder hoofs severely damage fields, destroying rich grasslands.
Rideshare services like Uber and Lyft were touted as ways to reduce car emissions. Still, the opposite happened as their drivers do a lot of random cruising between contracted rides.
It is almost impossible to determine the overall impact that a product causes on the environment due to the deception and misleading information that consumers are given.
Let’s look at some actual things that can be done to help the planet.
We can demand more from our legislators.
Many hate big government, but it is essential to remember that we have a government for a reason. When I was growing up in the 1960s, polluted rivers caught on fire, lakes died due to acid rains, and poorly regulated practices created ecological disasters like the Love Canal tragedy. As a result, laws were instituted at both local and national levels, and these regulations had a significant and positive impact on the environment.
I remember the Senate hearings where CEOs from major tobacco companies stated under oath that cigarette smoking was not damaging to health. This was a bald-faced lie, as these individuals had long known that tobacco was addictive and dangerous. Nevertheless, the tobacco industry was interested in selling more cigarettes. Yes, smokers would die early, but there were always those kids who they could capture as future smokers. Do you remember Joe Camel, a phallic-like cartoon camel designed to encourage boys to start their addiction early? If it were up to industry, we all would be smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.
In the 1950s, about 54% of the US population smoked; currently, that number is around 16%. Much of this change is due to legislation and the incorporation of education, investment in stop smoking treatments, and the institution of high cigarette taxes. Sometimes we need big government to protect us from big industries.
However, some legislation can be ridiculous, case in point is those California cancer warning labels on just about everything. They are so generalized and ubiquitous that they have lost any meaning.
Since companies use greenwashing to increase their bottom line, consumers need governmental regulations and standards that define the environmental impact that a product poses.
If we can’t trust product labels, product claims, or commonly accepted facts, what can we currently do to slow down our planet’s destruction?
We can be thoughtful
The more we unnecessarily use a resource, the more we negatively damage our environment. Leaving lights on, watering the grass when unnecessary, doing partial loads of laundry, running a half-full dishwasher, keeping our thermostat settings hotter or colder than necessary… The list goes on. Did you know that many intelligent electronics, like TV sets, use almost as much electricity when off as when on? Some subvert this process by unplugging infrequently used devices when not in use.
Imagine the reduction in electric power needed if every household raised their AC temperature by a few degrees and turned off the lights in empty rooms. If you have several errands to run, can you combine them in a single trip? Can you walk or bike somewhere instead of driving? Can you substitute environmentally friendly activities for some of your ecologically damaging ones? Small changes amplified over thousands of users can have a significant effect. The key is to develop a plan that you can reasonably follow and then stick with that plan.
We can recycle stuff.
Recycling has been around for quite some time, and some items like aluminum and paper can be recycled reasonably effectively. However, recycled items need to be adequately prepared to be recycled. If your community has a recycling program, check its website for guidelines for preparation and separation. For instance, items must be cleaned before being recycled in many cases. In other cases, recyclables have to be separated into categories. Even if your community has a plastic recycling program, despite what you may think, plastic items are not generally recyclable. Therefore, limiting your plastic use is better than recycling plastics that will likely go into a landfill or the ocean. For more information on this topic, see this link.
We can avoid all or none thinking.
It is fun to get pumped up about things, and it is easy to come up with elaborate plans. For example, “I will exercise at the gym for 90 minutes every day,” or “I will become a zero-waste consumer.” Yes, these ideas are great, but they only are helpful if you do them. It is common to come up with a complicated or elaborate plan, and when it fails, it is then easy to abandon everything and go back to business as usual. A much better approach is to develop a plan that you feel that you can do. Can you can advance that plan further? Great. If not, you are still doing more than what you did before. Assess your plan every week, and write it down; adjust as needed. Any action is better than no action. Remember, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
We can use things longer.
A lot of energy goes into manufacturing things, and that energy use results in the production of greenhouse gasses and toxic waste. When Julie was studying for her Ph.D., one of her professors reused his brown lunch bag until it was no longer usable. He could use a bag for a week or two. In other words, he was using a single bag when others would use 5-10 bags. This was a simple act that didn’t have a single negative effect on him, but it had a small positive impact on the environment.
My daughter uses a reusable sandwich container instead of plastic baggies for her lunches. I brought my meals to work in a soft-sided reusable lunch bag when I was employed. When my bag got grimy, I tossed it into the washer with other items, allowing me to use the same bag for years. Reusable sandwich containers and lunch bags have a larger carbon footprint to manufacture than single-use items, so the key is to use them for as long as possible.
Buy well-made things. Items don’t have to be the most expensive, but they need to be of sound construction. High use items like coats can last for many years if they are well-made. Avoid fast fashion and consider a capsule wardrobe. Fast fashion items are designed to be worn a few times and discarded; think of the horrific environmental pollution every time a throw-away piece is manufactured and then tossed into a landfill. A capsule wardrobe allows the wearer to have a minimum of clothes and still look presentable. Fewer clothes mean less is manufactured, leading to a minor environmental impact.
I mentioned that you have to use a cotton grocery bag at least 100 times before its environmental impact is less than a single-use bag. I’m not promoting the use of single-use plastic bags. Instead, I’m urging that reusable bags be reused repeatedly. Surprisingly, reusable plastic bags may have a less environmental impact than cotton bags. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and non-woven polypropylene (NWPP) need to be used only 2 and 22 times to beat out single-use plastic bags. In addition, natural bags made out of material like hemp are more environmentally friendly than cotton bags. It is best to buy high-quality bags, as the longer you use them, the lower their environmental impact. Sadly, those who opt for reusable grocery bags forget them 40% of the time. As another aside, the manufacturing of paper grocery bags has a considerably more negative impact on the environment than single-use plastic bags. However, paper bags are biodegradable, whereas plastic ones are not. It is all so complicated.
Consider the environment when deciding to upgrade anything. Is that kitchen remodel needed? Do you have to buy a new car? Anything that you continue to use is one less thing that must be manufactured and one less thing polluting a landfill.
We can use less.
Apply this philosophy to all things, and you will be helping both the environment and your pocketbook.
I have previously written posts on how I have simplified the use of our household chemicals. I buy one bottle of an all-purpose cleaner which I dilute 1:32 into a reusable spray bottle. For good measure, I add a drop or two of dish detergent before filling the rest of the container with water. I use this concoction to clean countertops, tables, the inside of the microwave and fridge, and just about anything with a surface. I have used the same high-quality plastic spray bottle for years, and a single bottle of all-purpose cleaner lasts a very long time.
It would be challenging to give up paper towels completely, but I use reusable towels for about 60-70% of my cleanups. In addition, I make an effort to print less, and I try to store more documents electronically.
Solid hygiene products are similar to liquid ones, minus the water. For example, a soap bar lasts about as long as a bottle of shower gel. However, a soap bar doesn’t have a plastic bottle that needs to be discarded in a landfill. Sold bars of shampoo and conditioner are well-liked by consumers. Likewise, you can buy laundry detergent sheets that eliminate throwing massive empty plastic jugs into the garbage.
Your dishwasher uses the same amount of water and energy if you wash one cup or a full load. Please make an effort to run your dishwasher less by filling it first. The same logic can be applied to laundry. Do full loads of laundry instead of washing piecemeal. Do you live in a sunny area? Consider purchasing a solar dryer, also called a clothesline.
Do you have a white-collar life? Consider wearing certain clothing items more than one time before you wash them. For example, I wash my jeans when they are dirty, not every time I take them off.
On average, Americans throw out 30-40% of the food they purchase. Arid areas in the Southwest have been irrigated for decades and have become the nation’s breadbasket. Water is a limited resource in these places, and agriculture uses more water than any other user. Most farms are run by corporations, and crops are cultivated using gigantic fuel-burning machines. Foods are then processed in huge energy-consuming plants and shipped across the country, sometimes in refrigerated cars. Think of the greenhouse gasses created and the chemicals used for all of these processes. If every citizen eliminated food waste, we could significantly reduce these hazards.
The bottom line
As I researched this topic, I became acutely aware that it is impossible to evaluate how green something is. I came to understand that many companies emphasize their commitment to the environment as a marketing ploy rather than a concern for our future. Sadly, you can’t trust what manufacturers, web pages, or YouTube influencers tell you.
Even if you are an educated consumer, it can be impossible to understand the environmental impact of a product. Labels can be deceptive, and companies that promote one aspect of being ecologically responsible may be using that fact as a red herring to disguise the other environmentally damaging things that they are doing.
However, by using the suggestions listed above, you can have a tangible personal impact on the environment. Naturally, an individual’s influence is small, but one’s efforts are magnified when combined with others. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and being more environmentally friendly starts with a single action.