Is it Sustainable? Or is it Greenwashing?

When you first hear the word ‘greenwashing’, what do you think of?  For me, it conjures up images of a new sustainable fabric washing detergent! There are a lot of new buzz-words, around the subject of sustainability.  So much so, that it’s not always clear what these new words mean and how they are relevant to protecting the planet.

Greenwashing refers to the process applied by a business that falsely markets themselves as being eco-friendly, doing their bit to save the planet.   Kenton (2020) cites, ‘greenwashing is a play on the term “whitewashing,” which means using misleading information to gloss over bad behaviour’. Therefore, when you peel back the layers and investigate further, the company’s products are not as sustainable as they profess, misleading us-the consumer.  With many attitudes changing towards a much healthier and greener lifestyle, the need for sustainable products has never be so great as now and is only going to grow.  Therefore, any item advertised as being green or natural is likely to influence our purchase of services and products.  This may be one of  the key influences for companies to greenwash.  Greenwashing masks characteristics of a product which may have a negative effect on the environment and our health and wellbeing.

The processes and materials used in the product’s manufacturing process may include use of chemicals and large amounts of water and energy.  Therefore, creating a product which could generate greater amounts of off gassing, having a negative effect on the internal air quality, which we breathe within our homes and places of work.  Furthermore, these products may not be able to bereused or biodegradable.  This goes against the characteristics of a sustainable approach to design, following a linear method comprising single use, throw away system.

For conscientious interior designers and architects greenwashing could affect the credibility of a practice who prides its self on sustainability and promoting a circular economy.  Circular economy, a sustainable approach to design, which involves designing in a manner which includes designing out waste and pollution, maximising product life, and regenerating natural systems.  Therefore, any product, which is wrongly advertised as being sustainable could affect the overall outcome of a project, leaving the architect or designer liable.

To help prevent the inclusion of greenwashing within a design project, highlights the need, more so than ever, for assessing the lifecycle of all materials selected.  This involves identifying the following: the extraction of the all raw materials used; the manufacturing processes of the product; transportation and its end of life, can it be recycled, reused or is it biodegradable?  This process can be implemented by anyone, it is not just a system for those involved within the design industry.

Companies that greenwash are not meeting their Corporate Social Responsibilities.  Corporate Social Responsibility is, as cited by Ecovadis. a company’s responsibility for the impact of its activities on  society and the environment.  Therefore, a company, which is greenwashing may be going against its CSR.  Once exposed, this is likely to result in a loss of business and cause lasting damage to their reputation.

So how can you identify if the green marketing of a company is authentic and true to its word?  When sourcing products for a design/building project look for companies who don’t just say it but can prove it.  This may include investigating the product or service further.  For a company to get green certification for its product they have to qualify and pass the standards of the organisation authorising it.  For instance, if a cotton fabric states it  is organic but is not Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and fair trade certified, you could presume that the cotton is not 100% organic.  If  a product or service states it is natural or organic don’t just presume this is true.  Look at the products life cycle, as identified above.   If the information regarding a products raw material is not available, contact the manufacturer directly.  Ask them to clarify as to how and where the product is grown and made. For instance, are the worker’s pay and conditions appropriate? Do they use re-useable materials rather than taking more out of the planet?  Is there a lot manufacturing waste?

Investigating every material used in a design project may seem quite overwhelming by some.  However, to protect not just the planet but the health and wellbeing of clients  it is considered to be an important part of the design process.  Therefore, guaranteeing all work completed on a design project, lives up to the reputation of that design business, who may pride themselves on sustainability.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions and confront companies on their manufacturing processes. It is crazy to think that companies are able to falsely advertise their products as green, when actually they could be doing more harm than good.

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