The Irony of the Sustainability Movement
Written by Ryan Khoo and Xavierlyn Tan
Are we really being sustainable?
In 2021, the Global Consumer Insights Survey (GCIS) found that 50% of global consumers have become more eco-friendly, a marked increase from the 35% found in the GCIS 2019. Another global survey conducted in 2021 found that 63% of consumers have shifted towards being more sustainable in the past 5 years. These statistics reflect heightened environmental consciousness and commitment to be eco-friendly on a global scale.
Consumers, in their efforts to be environmentally friendly citizens, may find themselves purchasing reusable containers, reusable straws, eco-friendly coffee cups, reusable shopping bags - the list goes on - but are these efforts really contributing to the sustainability movement?
A study by the Singapore Environment Council in 2018 found that Singapore uses 1.76 billion plastic items every year. A recommendation to decrease single-use plastic was to use reusable items made of glass/metal instead.
A product that has been commonly advertised as a green alternative to plastic straws is metal straws. These days, it is common to see corporations and schools give out metal straws in canvas pouches during welfare events, once again reflecting the shift in the environmental paradigm. With food places such as Subway, KFC, and Poke Theory banning plastic straws, metal straws are handy items to bring around if one prefers to use straws. However, according to a 2019 study, the energy to produce one metal straw is equivalent to the energy used to produce 90 plastic straws. In terms of CO2 emissions, producing a single metal straw is comparable to producing 150 plastic straws.
Another example is are takeaway containers which are intended to reduce one-time-use containers such as styrofoam boxes or plastic containers. Research by Gallego-Schmid and colleagues found that reusable containers made of polypropylene (also commonly known as Tupperware) endanger landscapes regardless of how many times they have been used due to the emission of toxic heavy metals into the environment. In this same study, styrofoam containers require less electricity than the production of polypropylene containers. One of such containers would have to be used between 16 to 208 times to counter the impact of resource consumption.
Purchase of ?eco-friendly products
Greenwashing, also known as green sheen is a type of marketing approach used by organizations to mislead consumers into believing that their products and policies are environmentally friendly. This is usually done through green PR (communication of company’s corporate social responsibility) and green marketing (marketing products as environmentally safe).
For example, in 2018, Starbucks released a “straw-less lid” to promote sustainability. However, critics have pointed out that the new lid contained more plastic than the previous lid and straw. Another example is H&M, which launched its own line of eco-friendly clothing, “Conscious”, in an attempt to provide “sustainable” and “environmentally friendly” fashion. Nonetheless, H&M was lambasted by the Norwegian Customer Authority for distorting the truth, since the information provided was insufficient to justify the supposed environmental benefits.
Well, it is not surprising to see why greenwashing organizations are so keen on greenwashing. An American study found that 64% of Gen X and 75% of millennials were willing to spend more on products that came from a sustainable brand!
The market for eco-friendly products
The market for eco-friendly products has seen staggering growth in recent years. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), reported that there has been a 71% rise in popularity for sustainable goods in the past 5 years. This paradigm shift towards eco-consumerism - the purchasing of goods manufactured in an environmentally friendly manner- may at first glance appear beneficial for the environment, sparking a possible mechanism for global change. However, research has shown that eco-consumerism does little to slow down rates of deforestation, and we tend to overestimate the change we are enacting when purchasing eco-friendly products. In fact, it has been argued that green consumption is still consumption, and unless we buy less, reuse and recycle the materials we already possess, we would still be contributing to environmental damage.
Is this a lost cause?
Of course not! The purpose of this post is not to discourage sustainability practices or demoralize individuals passionate about the environment. Instead, we hope to encourage our readers to think critically about the practices we choose to adopt so we do not unintentionally harm the environment.
Although the production of a single metal straw requires more energy and produces more carbon emissions than a plastic straw, plastic straws have a 100% disposal rate while metal straws had a disposal rate of 3% in 5 years. Since a metal straw produces 150 times more carbon emissions than a plastic straw, this means that to offset the effects of the environmental costs, you would have to use the metal straw at least 150 times!
Likewise, as mentioned above, you would have to reuse your container multiple times to offset the costs on the environment. This means that it is still possible to minimize the impact on the environment as long as you stick to reusing the same item without purchasing a new one or changing it unless needed. There are also starch-based plastic materials such as wheat straw plastic which are biodegradable and could help us in our efforts to be green. You can find out more about wheat straw plastic here.
As mentioned above, companies that proclaim pro-sustainability may not actually be sustainable companies. Educating ourselves on the companies we choose to purchase our products from and researching on the products they manufacture can protect us from falling to greenwashing practices. This article writes about how we can identify greenwashing.
Enhancing the quality of our environment through adopting sustainable practices can strengthen our environmental health, in turn contributing to our feelings of safety and health. Through evaluating the sustainable practices we want to adopt, we learn to be more critical of the information we receive, yet mindful of the habits we choose to adopt.