Cutting through the noise
How to cultivate trust in your sustainability claims is a conversation that is essential for all sustainability companies. It’s an issue that is clouded in uncertainty, ubiquity and general (and increasing) distrust among consumers at large. The issue? Sustainability. It’s turning from a darling of the new economy, an equitable and progressive phrase which people and companies can hang their proverbial hats on, into a beast which nobody seems to know how to control.
Excuse me for pointing out the obvious, but companies must be more sustainable. In fact, the entire human race must adopt more sustainable lifestyles to ensure a, quite literally, tenable future. There’s a wealth of information out there (this website notwithstanding). The challenge is figuring out what to do with it, who to trust, what is actually actionable and effective and how to feel comfortable with leading a sustainable lifestyle.
Head already hurting? Not to worry, you’re not alone. I’d wager you’ve found yourself reading this article in an effort to gain clarity or be a more sustainable consumer. Sustainable Guides prides itself in being keenly aware of the pitfalls of the phrase “sustainability” itself. Even second-wave iterations of the concept like circularity, meaning the practice of keeping products and materials in a continuous life cycle to eliminate waste, or regeneration, meaning the practice of creating products that actually reverse environmental harm, are being similarly spoiled.
Is their substance to their sustainability claims?
The issue for today’s consumers—like you and I—is cutting through the noise of these terms to
find meaningful depth to the conversation. The best ways of doing so often lie well beyond these
buzzwords and harken back to a more rudimentary interpretation of sustainability. For us, we really try to home in on transparency; are their sustainability claims genuine? If a brand, company, or product has easily traceable elements, this is the easiest way to discern whether or not there’s substance to their claims. A good example of this is a fast-fashion multinational providing a mindful or conscious line of
products. They can tout their efforts all they want, but oftentimes these comprehensive promises
are unsubstantiated or are unable to be fully ascertained; sustainably-sourced cotton could just
be organic cotton that is still mass-produced, is dyed with toxic chemicals and is manufactured
to such scale that there ends up being a lot of waste or unusable products.
The technical phrase describing this is “greenwashing”, which is defined by Merriam-Webster as
“expressions of environmentalist concerns especially as a cover for products, policies, or activities.” Can you spot the key word? Covering up environmental concerns has been the modern marketer’s biggest task in recent years, and as these concerns grow, so too will the clever techniques these companies will employ to keep the consumer appeased about the impact that purchasing products from these companies actually has on the environment. The power to play on people’s indifference towards these issues—or, at least, willingness to turn a blind eye—is a powerful tool in greenwashing marketing practices. If a company says they’re doing good, then they must be. Who are we to question their integrity, their claims of sustainability?
A good way to tell whether or not a company is really doing their part is to see whether or not they have wider social corporate governance. A company who wants to benefit people by aligning themselves with philanthropic causes or paying their workers a fair wage should be fairly environmentally-conscious also. There are some great companies out there that are eco-auditing these companies, too. Australia’s Good On You and New Zealand company All Things Considered offer third-party assessment of fashion companies to determine how much they are actually doing to be sustainable. Is it just lip service, or is it meaningful?
Sustainability distrust amongst consumers
As with most things, there isn’t an exact science. You can read as many environmental reports
and sustainability articles as you want, but there’s simply so many areas of a product’s supply
chain that are really hard to trace. I think this is why, at least with bigger companies, the
willingness to jump on the sustainable, circular, regenerative business bandwagon has become
out of control. And, unfortunately, this has caused an erosion of the public’s trust.
So, if there’s so much distrust among consumers, why are companies still trying to push sustainability? One reason could be that they are ignorant of how late they are to the party. Another could be the uncertainty surrounding the phrase; they are happy to claim sustainability due to the incredibly wide scope of the definition. Regulators are equally as slow with implementing parameters and it’s a bit of a lawless landscape. In the coming years, I’m sure it’ll become more difficult to claim sustainable business practice without actually reporting things with solid evidence.
Educate yourself & others about sustainability claims
I hear you: What do we do in the meantime? How do we prevent this from happening again once circularity and regenerative business reach the heights of sustainability? The simple answer is to be curious. Educate yourself and others and encourage conversation with the companies, brands, and people you align yourself with. If you see a great new shoe brand, message them via social media and enquire about their environmental standards. See if they have any statistics on their website alongside their products. Maybe they’re purchasing carbon offsets or planting trees, or maybe they construct their shoes with recycled materials.
Don’t be afraid to push a bit further. A really important thing to check for is the things they actually have done, not what they claim to be doing or plan on doing. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “we plan on making 50% of our product line from sustainable sources by 2025, and 100% of our products by 2030 will be either from recycled or fully sustainable materials.” OK, so you may not have heard that verbatim, but you get the point. It’s vague, it’s unclear, and it’s almost impossible to guarantee a claim like this. The only logical explanation is simply pandering to an increasingly woke modern consumer who wants to do good by people and planet.
The more you are aware of these kinds of things happening, the more equipped you will be when making purchasing decisions and understanding what a brand actually means when they say “sustainable.”