Let's be honest, Episode 25: Brands and Sustainability

Let’s be honest is a Food Circle project to open up the conversation about the challenges when being or becoming a member of the SC (Sustainability Club). This series will shine a light on the different approaches to making life more sustainable and the step-backs and difficulties that arise. Being more kind and understanding, instead of critical, will hopefully help to encourage us to try instead of giving up when facing a step-back or failure. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment.


Let’s celebrate the achievements and give room for honesty and struggles!



What are we talking about?


Hyper consumerism is becoming a common and widespread concern among the conversations surrounding sustainability and environmental anxiety. With the ever-growing popularity of trends on social media, it is difficult to ignore the marketing targeted towards its users and how it affects their buying habits. One of the most prevalent trends on the internet involves clothes. The fashion industry is the most water-polluting industry, second only to the oil refining industry. It contributes 10% of greenhouse gas emissions globally, it fills the ocean with micro plastic particles, and, when clothes are dyed, 72% of that dye ends up in wastewater as toxic chemical waste [1]. Another consumerist trend is buying furniture. Recycling furniture is complex and the majority of mixed-material furniture pieces end up in landfills, altogether amassing more than 12 million tons a year in the U.S. alone [2]. Additionally, a 2017 study that examined furniture in net-zero energy buildings found that “furniture and appliances were responsible for around 30% of greenhouse gas emissions and non-renewable energy consumption and 15% of primary energy consumption” when compared to the buildings themselves [3].


These trends are problematic in more ways than one. When contributing to a wasteful trend, we create a demand that increases production. This, in turn, upholds the careless and destructive production structure that negatively affects the environment, economic systems, and the lives of people in developing nations who are often treated unethically and not paid living wages to produce commodities that are supplied to consumers in developed countries. The rise of these trends also implies that there is a fall, which is definitely the case the majority of the time. When an item falls out of trend, it is simply discarded by the consumer in favor for the ‘next big thing.’ This creates a non-ending cycle of wasteful consumption that only serves a feeling of temporary gratification.


Consumer Awareness


Prior to buying anything, our mission as consumers should always be to reduce. We should stop and ask ourselves the reason for purchasing an item, and if there are better, more sustainable alternatives. A good alternative is buying second-hand goods, as this does not create a demand for new items to be produced. However, when this is not possible, there are ways in which we can check if certain brands are more sustainable than others in order to make a more educated, conscious purchase. A sustainable brand should be transparent regarding its processes and business, pay its workers a living wage, source its materials sustainably, and would usually have certifications from third-party sustainability agents.


Below are some of the ways we can learn more about a brand:


1. The ‘About Us’ Page


The brand’s website should include information regarding its business design. This is usually given as the mission statement. A truly sustainable brand would be transparent about its production, how it sources the materials used in its products and whether or not they are eco-friendly, and how it combats the greenhouse gases it emits. It should also discuss how the workers are treated, if they are provided with safe work environments and if they are paid fair wages according to the standard of living in their respective countries or place of residence. As consumers we should be wary of the ever popular greenwashing strategy and avoid brands that put out vague statements about their production. Additionally, brands that have an ‘eco-friendly’ line are usually a red-flag because they acknowledge that their regular line of products are harmful to the environment.


2. Never-Ending Trends


Continuously adding new items as part of a trend as well as having a constant promotion of sales are usually big indicators that a brand is not sustainable, neither environmentally nor ethically in terms of labor. This also means that the products themselves are of poor quality; they are not meant to last very long, only long enough until the next trend pops up, more rapidly spilling toxic waste into the ocean and piling up in landfills.


3. Third-Party Investigation and Certification


Brands are generally not held accountable for what they put out on their own websites. Words such as sustainable, eco-friendly, responsible, and conscious are meaningful only if they can be backed-up. Through third-party certifications, brands are given a thorough examination to verify whether or not they are sustainable. Agents like B Corp, Rainforest Alliance, Made Safe, and many more offer nonbiased testing to confirm the sustainability measures and ethical practices of a company. However, it should be noted that these certifications are costly and time consuming. Therefore, not all brands (especially not small businesses) would be able to afford and receive them. Still, it is good to keep a look out for these credentials.


4. Contacting the Brand


Another way of learning more about a brand is by contacting them directly. Most brands do communicate with their concerned customers and will offer insight into their practices. The type of response you receive can be very telling, as well as a lack of one. To reiterate, a sustainable brand or a brand that has clear sustainable goals will be transparent and honest about their operation. They tend to avoid vague explanations and answer queries in an unambiguous manner. If a brand does not respond, it usually means that they have something to hide.


Conclusion


Reduction in our overall consumption, not following aimless internet trends, and being more conscious about industry practices are ways we can contribute to a more sustainable lifestyle. Raising awareness on this issue is crucial, as well as pressuring brands to adopt eco-friendly measures that actually work, and supporting existing brands that carry out these values in order to create a consumer base that is mindful about its habits. Change can indeed start with the individual.



Author: Rima Qayed


 

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References


  1. Fashion industry and conscious consumption | United Nations Development Programme (undp.org)

  2. Fast Furniture Is an Environmental Fiasco | The New Republic

  3. On the necessity of improving the environmental impacts of furniture and appliances in net-zero energy buildings - ScienceDirect

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