The Grass Isn’t Always Greener
Greenwashing is the deceptive practice of making a company appear more environmentally friendly than it really is. As brands face increasing pressures to reduce their negative impact on the planet, this marketing ploy has unfortunately penetrated most industries today, including consumer tech. While most companies may truly desire to act more responsibly, executing can pose some major challenges. The good news is that new technology exists for brands to access and implement without much prohibitive costs. It’s now a matter of demonstrating a genuine commitment to progress, and living up to the claims.
Few would argue that corporate sustainability goals should be encouraged. If a company pledges to become carbon neutral by 2030, let’s applaud. Especially if joined by a comprehensive, publicly shared action plan. Is this an example of greenwashing? Not exactly. For many large organizations, improvement takes time. But if the promise is genuine, it deserves widespread support.
Yes, generating attention by appealing to conscientious consumers is trendy. And as a consumer, greenwashing isn’t always easy to spot. To help, consider the following red flags.
1. Limited product selection. A company typically won’t transform their entire product assortment. But it may release a single “eco-friendly” product or two, and launch a huge marketing campaign to promote it. In this scenario, the brand is not likely leading the Green Revolution.
2. Vague language in claims made. A recent study by the European Commission assessed 344 “seemingly dubious” sustainability claims made by brands. In 42% of cases, researchers believed the claim was false, deceptive, or an unfair business practice. Mostly for lack of supplying consumers with enough information, or simply failing to substantiate the claims.
3. Promotion of overconsumption through products. “Upgrade culture” is an uncomfortable issue for the electronics industry. A wide selection of new products is traditionally viewed as beneficial to the consumer. However, this often leads to massive excess inventory levels which are then liquidated into submarkets with much less control over product life cycle. Or even worse, wholesale disposal straight into a landfill; product, packaging, and all.
Now that we’ve identified some examples, let’s explore a few greenwashing trends currently popular in our industry.
You may have noticed a range of accessory brands offering products built from bioplastic materials, backed with claims such as “sustainably made,” “biodegradable,” or “compostable.” With bioplastic production estimated to jump from 1.7M tons to 5.8M tons in coming years, it’s important to know how these materials affect the environment.
What is bioplastic? Well, there’s no standardized definition. Bioplastics are made using at least 20% renewable sources such as corn or sugarcane. Yet, bioplastic is not 100% natural, but rather man-made using natural polymers via chemical reaction to create synthetic polymers. Natural polymers only occur in nature such as silk, starch and cellulose.
In fact, bioplastics routinely include a mixture of traditional plastics–derived from non-renewable fossil-fuels–to help meet performance standards such as strength and flexibility. It’s not uncommon for brands to avert clarity about the composite of their mixture.
So, at the end of the day… it’s still plastic.
Although bioplastics offer the promise of a guilt-free purchase compared to standard plastic, it actually causes greater damage to the environment in terms of overall impact. Especially if these products end up in landfills or are not properly recycled or composted. Let’s go deeper.
While bioplastics have the potential for lower impact, it’s critical to consider the entire lifecycle of the product. Most bioplastic won’t break down on its own, eliminating the option for home/backyard composting. These materials require an industrial compost facility, which are limited in number. To make matters worse, less than 15% of such facilities even accept bioplastic products due to its disruption of the process for actual compostable waste volumes, leaving most consumers without a viable option for disposal.
Bioplastic also can’t be reclaimed via curbside pickup as it contaminates batches of collected plastic, and damages recycling infrastructure. For example, if bioplastic infiltrates recycled PET (the most common type of plastic), the entire batch is rejected and sent to a landfill. Completely separate recycling streams are required, but rarely exist in current processing facilities.
This leads to an even bigger concern. Since these products are marketed as “biodegradable” or “compostable,” consumers are more likely to believe discarding it with everyday trash isn’t as harmful. Guess again. The UN estimates upwards of 43% of plastic consumed globally enters landfills. When bioplastic enters the landfill, it acts as normal plastic would, eventually breaking down into microplastics and other contaminants. Plus, due to the bio-based source material, it releases methane, which is far more detrimental to the ecosystem than CO2. It’s incidental outcomes like these that invoke a layer of greenwashing. The goal must be to change consumer behavior, not make it easier to maintain the status quo.
Producing the Source Material
Now, let’s examine what’s needed to grow the feedstock for making bioplastic: Plants. And not just any plants. Monocrop plants.
Monocropping is the practice of growing a single crop in a single area. This doesn’t exist in nature. It requires immense amounts of fertilizers, pesticides, and water, while leading to soil depletion and biodiversity loss.
As stated earlier, the market for bioplastics is skyrocketing. Current estimates of more than 3.4 million acres of land are needed to meet demand. That’s an area larger than Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands combined. Land which would largely be diverted from food production.
The Nimble Approach
To achieve the goal of becoming the world’s most sustainable tech accessory company, our team conducted extensive materials research to find the lowest impact solutions. In full transparency, our earliest products used bioplastic (PLA) as the allure of “plant-based” and “compostable” plastic seemed like the obvious solution to our planet’s plastic problem.
Following discussions with top environmental advocates, we concluded that bioplastics offer no benefit to the environment, while doing more harm than good. It’s simply a tactic designed to confuse and mislead consumers.
Nimble’s ultimate goal is to eliminate virgin plastic entirely from our supply chain. We concluded that the only acceptable choice is recycled plastic, which is taken from existing waste streams. In total, using post-consumer plastic requires less energy to create new products, and strengthens the recycling industry by increasing demand for these reclaimed materials.
Product packaging is a necessary part of life. Encasing virtually everything we purchase, from food and toiletries to furniture and electronics. It preserves product integrity, and protects our goods during transport. Unsurprisingly, packaging also accounts for a third of all household trash, and is the largest single contributor to plastic waste, making up nearly 46% of all plastic produced.
At the very least, packaging should be designed for recyclability. Meaning it can be collected, sorted, reprocessed, then used to manufacture new goods. In recent years, you may have observed a trend where companies tout the use of new packaging materials, add a generic recycled loop icon to the box, and triumphantly promote that their packaging is now 100% recyclable. Sound familiar?
The problem here is that packaging can only be recyclable if there’s a substantial likelihood it will actually be recycled. Despite best intentions (or plain old greenwashing), factors such as mixed materials, insufficient processing facilities, and consumer behavior all contribute to the deceptiveness of this claim.
First, we must consider the types of materials used in this packaging, as well as the recycling rate of those materials. For example, global recycling rates of paper are above 70%, while plastic is significantly lower at around 9% (including packaging). Just because a material could potentially be reprocessed, doesn’t make it recyclable. This gets even murkier when packaging is made of two or more materials, as it often is.
The majority of recycling facilities are simply not set up to dismantle and process mixed material packaging. A layer of plastic that’s attached to a layer of paper is nearly impossible to recycle. This design method is tragically commonplace among tech accessory packaging. While the core structure of a product box may consist of paper, additional features such as protective films, foil stamping, UV coatings, plastic hang tags, and laminated surfaces essentially void any chance of it being repurposed. In this scenario, when a customer tries to recycle the packaging via curbside collection, it ends up contaminating the entire recycling stream it’s contained in. Today, about 25% of all recyclables in the United States are contaminated by non-recyclable elements.
At best, it’s sneaky to claim a package is recyclable when only a small component actually is, or when recycling facilities for the materials used are unavailable in most regions.
Ironically, the overemphasis on recycling of this mixed type of packaging actually detracts from the need for more sustainable solutions, such as non-plastic components, and a general reduction in packaging size and materials used.
Misleading Terms & Symbols
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a company that employs the term “recyclable” should ensure the package can be collected, separated or otherwise recovered from the waste stream through an established recycling program, and substantiate this with credible data. If not, and the company fails to qualify its claim with a statement that it can’t be recycled in most communities, then it’s deceptive.
Another thing to remember is just because a package includes elements of recycled material, this doesn’t make it recyclable. Companies often add the recycling icon in reference to post-consumer materials used to create the packaging rather than its inherent recyclability–but fail to explain this intent–which is misleading. Same can be said for emphasizing the use of recycled materials without providing accurate information about the percentage of recycled content.
The Nimble Approach
As product makers, we decided not to contribute to the plastic packaging crisis, and in 2018 introduced 100% plastic-free packaging for all Nimble goods. Since then, our industry has made progress. Still, five years later, accessory brands remain satisfied with celebrating a reduction of plastic content in packaging, while claiming it as “recyclable.”
True recyclable packaging is certainly a step in the right direction. But it’s important to be critical of marketing tactics, and openly question any company’s practices when an eco-friendly assertion is presented to consumers.
Since 2021, a lot of consumer tech brands have added fresh pages to websites, issued press releases, drafted annual Sustainability Reports, posted on social media, and leveraged influencers to share updates about their newfound commitment to reducing their impact on the environment. One major area of emphasis is electronic waste.
E-waste is an urgent issue with colossal ramifications. About 85% of all tech products are currently sent to landfills and incinerators, generating nearly 70% of overall toxic waste. As the fastest growing stream of waste on the planet, e-waste is catastrophic to our ecosystem and the low-income communities most dramatically affected by it. Around 80% of e-waste collected in the U.S. for recycling is exported to developing countries.
Per a recent survey, 57% of people are worried about the ecological effects of tech waste, but simply don’t know what to do with it. This same segment also believes manufacturers should be responsible for the safe disposal of the products they create. If more companies prioritize both e-waste education and development of user-friendly solutions, customers are much more likely to recycle their old gadgets.
This is where our industry is failing.
Electronics must also be designed for easier disassembly, so each material–plastics, metals, etc–can be reclaimed and reused. It’s a fundamental effort all brands should accommodate, while communicating at various points along the customer’s journey.
Regrettably, tech makers often stop short of taking a strong public stance on e-waste, while others simply publish modest statements about the problem, and a link directing consumers to a local recycler or national directory of drop-off facilities.
Other companies do go a step further by offering free e-waste recycling or some form of trade-in program. Although admirable, few accept electronics not manufactured by the company itself.
This is where our industry is failing. We see the calls for e-waste action, only for companies to avoid any tangible implementation. Without a functioning customer recycling program–funded by manufacturers themselves–brands are simply giving lip service to the crisis.
The Nimble Approach
As tech manufacturers, we believe we’re responsible for at least as much e-waste as we put out into the world. This means making it as easy as possible for customers to participate in responsible e-waste disposal.
In 2018, we launched our free nationwide mail-in recycling program–the One-for-One Tech Recovery Project™–proving that customers are ready to do their part. Then in 2021, we expanded this program to offer over 1,500 drop-off recycling locations across the U.S., doubling our rate of e-waste collection in the first month.
Real problems require real solutions. If tackling e-waste is a company’s stated objective, anything short of a fully subsidized reclamation program is overstating their commitment.
Today’s consumers have a nose for authenticity. Which is why greenwashing is such a high cost on society. More than half (53%) of U.S. consumers “sometimes” or “never” believe companies’ environmental claims. In the face of growing pressure for companies to develop more ethical practices, the potential for greenwashing persists in spite of overwhelming data supporting the business case for doing things the right way.
When scanning the market for new tech products, try adopting the following guidelines to avoid the pitfalls of greenwashing.
1) Trust your instincts. Many of the sustainability claims or imagery used in marketing a product won’t pass the smell test, or seem overhyped. If it sounds too good to be true…it isn’t.
2) Seek out precise language and descriptions about the material content used. If a brand advertises “made from recycled plastic” but doesn’t include the exact percentage, or leaves out any additional clarity about the materials, it’s best to move on.
3) Look for credible third-party certifications. A variety of nonprofit organizations exist with the purpose of evaluating a company’s environmental practices. Such endorsements can assure customers the claims being made are verified, saving you the effort of researching each independently. Brands that are Certified B Corporations, Climate Neutral Certified, or members of 1% for the Planet are trustworthy examples, and these organizations’ logos are typically added to product packaging or the company’s website.
4) Review the company’s full product assortment. If a brand is somewhat boastful about its pledge to sustainability, yet has only one or a handful of low impact products among its entire collection, this is a strong indicator as to their level of commitment.
5) Explore the company’s end-of-life programs. These demonstrate a brand’s promise to repurpose, reuse and/or recycle its product once the customer is finished with it. This is also helpful to determine whether the brand that’s selling you on the idea you’ve made eco-conscious purchase is truly living up to the challenge.
You have the power to effect change with every purchase you make.
Don’t be afraid to hold companies accountable. Request clarity. Although profits remain king, most companies want to do better, and understand consumers are the biggest driver of sustainable innovation. You have the power to effect change with every purchase you make. Your choices matter to any business’ bottom line, and will ultimately determine how far (and how fast) brands move toward legitimate progress.