Understanding the details of why not everything is so clear in trying to conduct an ethical business
There are no brands with uncompromised ethics. No matter how they twist it, the only way to stop doing harm to the environment and society is to cease any and all production. And so businesses have no choice but to assume responsibility for the harm they are doing to the environment and the people.
Why are companies trying to push environmentally friendly design over assuming actual responsibility? Are plant-based alternatives always the right choice? Which materials are not as environmentally friendly as we think they are? Can we solve all our problems with recycling? Can we eventually achieve a 100% clean economy? Let’s get into the details and figure out why running an ethical business is not so simple and how much can we reduce our impact on the planet in real conditions of today
Hot or Not?
85% of millennials and 80% of Gen Z believe that companies should invest in environmental protection programmes. Responsibility is in vogue, and marketers are catering to their customers’ wishes. An emergent term ‘greenwashing’ is widely used to describe products that are trying to present themselves as responsibly sourced and yet are not.
The industry dutifully churned out generic visual and verbal codes (green colour, muted tones, crafted materials, handwritten fonts and words like ‘natural’, ‘organic’ and ‘bio’). Even companies that are not appropriately certified use them.
For example, the lineup of Dorset Cereals a British cereal company, features all of those visual tricks, even though their products are not technically organic. KORRES, a Greek makeup brand, doesn’t have any international certificates either, and yet it positions itself as a natural brand, and that’s exactly how it’s perceived.
Certain product categories have a distinct perception advantage—they are easily perceived as more environmentally friendly. Everything that uses plant-based ingredients tends to be perceived more positively in that regard than the products sourced from animals—the latter is considered less ethical.
Plant-based alternatives are growing in popularity: in the US alone, the market for plant-based products has grown by 31% in two years (2017–2019).Farming, however, also impacts the environment. For instance, 80% of almonds used to make almond milk — a fairly popular product — are grown in California. These farming activities within the state have their price: use of pesticides, enormous water consumption and more than a third of the commercial bee population in the country dead — and that’s just in one season. That hardly qualifies as an ethical business.
Besides, not all countries are capable of manufacturing trendy plant-based products — and so these products are exported abroad, which leads to increased carbon dioxide emissions. Beyond Meat is a popular US-based brand that manufactures a revolutionary plant-based meat product—and it can be found on shelves in some Russian stores.Delivering these products from New York to Moscow causes two metric tonnes of CO2emissions. Is it then ethical to eat a burger with that American plant-based meat patty in Russia if had to cross half the globe to get here?
Every day another brand substitutes regular plastic with biodegradable plastic that’s partially comprised from plant-based materials. Yandex.Eats offers Eats offers Russian restaurants to transition to biodegradable packaging. Wildberries reports that the company now uses ‘eco-bags’. VTB has plans to stop using plastic for their bank cards and use polylactide (PLA) instead.
Experts warn, however, that these materials may be harmful for the environment: once they end up in landfills, these plastics break down in small particles faster and pollute the ground. It can be composted only under specific conditions achieved using special industrial equipment. It also cannot be processed with ordinary plastic, as it reduces the quality of secondary raw materials.
There are only 15 plants in Russia capable of efficient waste recycling, and only three among them have the capacity to compost organic waste. The importance of biodegradable plastics for Russian environment is greatly overstated at the moment.
Paper is considered more environmentally friendly by buyers and manufacturers alike. In 2019, McDonald’s UK started replacing plastic drinking straws with paper ones (in the UK alone, the fast food chain uses 1.8 million drinking straws every day). The paper substitutes, however, proved to be unsuitable for recycling, unlike the plastic original.
Certain companies choose recyclable materials instead of plastic. Nestle has come up with a paper packaging technology for its Yes! bar. Dunkin Donuts announced that it will be phasing out plastic cups, in favour of paper cups — the reaction to the announcement was mixed (people started using two cups for one drink because of cups’ lacking durability). Uniqlo committed to phasing our paper bags in its Russian stores.
Paper, however, has not been considered an environmentally friendly materialfor a long time. The production of a paper bag emits 70% more harmful substances into the atmosphere than the production of a plastic one. Papermaking is 50 times more water polluting. Carbon footprint of a paper bag is thrice that of a plastic bag.
Not all materials are suitable for recycling. Few materials are environmentally friendly in production. The solution then lies in reusing the materials. Some companies call unto their customers to get reusable bags: reward programme implemented in the Azbuka Vkusa chain gives customers extra bonus points for using their own bags and containers. Vkusvill sells reusable spunbond (small man-made fibre material) bags. Other chains, such as «Pyaterochka,»sell cotton grocery bags.
Reusing containers or vegetable bags; however, is not always feasible. Clause 8.11 of the Sanitary Rules and Regulations allows the sale of goods ‘in clean containers provided by consumers’, but there is no definition of cleanliness in the regulations. Stores, coffee houses and restaurants have the right to refuse to sell food in the buyer’s container for sanitary reasons (especially during epidemics).
A recent study by the Danish Ministry of the Environment and Food Industry found that a bag made from regular or organic cotton should be used 7,100 and 20,000 times, respectively.Only then will it have the same cumulative effect on the environment as a single use of a standard LDPE plastic bag.
Fashion is not
an Eco Profession
A cloth bag has to be recycled at some point, just like a regular plastic bag.The textile industry and the fashion industry are some of the worst polluters out there. According to a отчёта McKinseyreport, 60% of footwear and clothing are never recycled and end up in landfills. Quarter of all chemicals in the world are used to manufacture textile.
Scandals and public debates force some fashion brands to commit to some global goals for the coming decades. H&M is collecting fabrics for recycling, selects specific suppliers and pushes its environmentally friendly Conscious line—but H&M never tells anyone why are those things more environmentally friendly than its usual offerings.
300 designers make 12,000 new garments for Zara every year so that the retailer can update its collection several times per season. Buyers, in turn, start buying clothes more often, and change their attitude towards the clothing they buy: some things are discarded after being worn just a couple of times.
Big fashion brands live off the constant stimulation of new sales and production of new products. Product costs remain low, indicating unfair working conditions, poor quality and opaque supply chains. Even with the introduction of recycling initiatives, these companies are still unable to transition to closed-cycle manufacturing.
It’s not just fashion brands who strive for environmental friendliness. The economy at large should become circular in nature to enable the companies to become truly sustainable—and the meaning of sustainable is quite expansive. It means ‘resilient, able to exist for an extended period of time’. For businesses, it just means ‘ethical towards nature’. It means the use of renewable natural resources, respect for human rights, fair working conditions and safe disposal and recycling of all waste. Even the most developed countries on Earth have not yet achieved anything like that.
Environmental problems are a direct consequence of the modern structure of manufacturing and consumption. They are too global to be resolved with the individual efforts of select companies. However, it is extremely important to take individual steps so that the first initiatives may eventually develop into a systematic approach.
Only implement what has real impact and added value. Don’t substitute actual responsibility with an organic name or a green design. Get your certificates of conformity. Find ways to actually improve your product instead of wrapping it in craft paper. For example, the majority (76%) of Patagonia’s clothing is Fairtradecertified and uses sustainable materials. The company has implemented the WornWear project which helps consumers to repair clothes and extend the service life of the company’s products. Patagonia also buys old models and resells them at a substantial discount.
- Talk to your consumers in plain language. Stop presenting inconsequential actions as be-all end-all solutions. Don’t substitute materials you use to biodegradable ones if you can’t shoulder the responsibility for their recycling. Tell us how did you make your product and why is your packaging the best. An Australian hair product brand KEVIN.MURPHY makes containers from ocean plastic, for example. The brand campaigns for the conscious handling of their packages.Brand salons have special sink nozzles installed — they reduce water consumption.
- Stimulate your customers to give the materials back so that they may be recycled and reused. Stores all over Germany take glass and plastic back for recycling and refund the cost of the packaging to the customers. Underground system in Rome rewards the passengers who bring empty bottles for recycling with free rides. Some companies in Russia are now employing similar tactics: Henkel and Pyaterochka have just installed several fundomatsthat receive used bottles and give out discounts for certain brands offered in these chain stores.
- Keep your development vector in mind when developing your strategy. No company can achieve sustainability overnight. Nestle is planning to fully transition to environmentally friendly packaging only by 2025. But at the same time, the company was the first to release Gerber brand baby food in fully plastic pouches.. The packaging for this category of products used to contain metal foil which rendered packaging unfit for recycling.
Public anxiety about environmental problems will only grow, obviously, but the new emerging technologies inspire optimism and hope for the imminent arrival of alternative solutions. Learn to be honest with yourselves and your customers. Set global goals and take tangible, measurable steps to achieve them.