Trying to be sustainable? You’re (probably) being greenwashed

03 Aug 2021
By Hazel M., Freelance writer, journalist and total bookworm at Unite Students

As the world faces a climate emergency, it’s only natural (and responsible) to start looking at how we can live ‘greener’ in our everyday lives.

From being more mindful about the food we eat and the products we buy, to limiting our plastic use and cutting down on our energy, there are some really simple steps we can take to start living more sustainably.

But what about when we take action… only to find we’re being ‘greenwashed’?

The green economy in the UK was worth over £40bn back in 2019, and it’s only growing. People are shopping more ethically, and they want to be kinder to the planet.

So, why wouldn’t some of the most unsustainable companies in the world want a slice of the eco pie?

When I first started looking at how unsustainable my life was, I immediately started shopping more ethically in the supermarket. I ditched my L’Oreal shampoo and conditioner in favour of Love, Beauty & Planet’s totally vegan, bottled-in-recycled-plastic alternatives, and said goodbye to dairy altogether to embark on a plant-based diet.

But, after congratulating myself on the great job I was doing, more research revealed that, actually, some of the companies I was buying from were exactly those I was trying to boycott in the first place.

Here are some of the biggest offenders.

Alpro – milk and dairy alternative

I can’t lie, I love the taste of Alpro soya milk. I actually stopped drinking milk about ten years ago and this was my automatic go-to.

That was mainly because I didn’t like the taste of milk but, today, I’m well aware of how much of an impact animal agriculture has on the environment, too.

However, in 2017, the brand was acquired by Danone – one of the biggest dairy producers in the world. Ironic, no? Not only that, but as a devoted vegan, it was disheartening to find out Danone also tests on animals.

And the other options weren’t much better. Even Oatly, which was once considered one of the most sustainable non-dairy milk brands, has now been acquired by a company with links to deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest.

Now? I find sticking to supermarkets’ own brands of dairy-free milk and yoghurt a much more ethical option.

Love, Beauty & Planet – shampoo and conditioner

On my hunt to find a cruelty-free, more sustainable shampoo and conditioner alternative, I came across the Love, Beauty & Planet brand. Not only do they smell divine, but they claim to offer optimum hair health without the bad chemicals – and they’re vegan. They’re also bottled up in recycled plastic (that you can then recycle again).

So, after spending about £4 - £6 a bottle, I was fully on the Love, Beauty & Planet train… until I found out they were owned by Unilever. Unilever is known for advocating against animal testing, however it does do it ‘when required by law’.

But, more than that, they own numerous other big-ticket brands – from Dove to Pot Noodle - all of which leave behind a massive plastic footprint. And, yes, they’re trying to address the plastic problem, but it made me realise it was time to ditch the plastic altogether and try something else.

Today, I use shampoo bars made by a small business in my local town. They smell amazing, leave no plastic behind and are cruelty free, too.

Ecover – dishwasher tablets

I wasn’t lucky enough to have a dishwasher when I was at uni, so if you do, congrats! The good news is that I have one now, though, and I love it. But buying tablets for it put me in an ethical conundrum.

To start with, I quickly came across the Ecover brand. All of its products are made from plant-based and mineral ingredients and are ocean-friendly, with re-fillable options available. So, I was surprised to find, when I opened the box, that every dishwasher tablet was wrapped in unrecyclable plastic.

Now, the brand says it’s a problem they’re trying to address despite claiming their tablets to be ‘plastic free’. But, when you realise the brand is owned by SC Johnson (the crew behind Toilet Duck and Mr Muscle), it’s not hard to start questioning their ethical manufacturer promises. From pollution and animal testing to human rights, the company doesn’t have a great track record.

Thankfully, there are other brands out there doing it better and I’m now using smol, who make plastic free, ocean friendly washing machine sachets, too. The best part is that you get them sent straight to your door.

So, is it possible to actually be sustainable?

The practice of greenwashing makes it hard to know when we’re actually buying sustainable or not, and that’s all thanks to great marketing.

The trick is doing your own research, choosing those companies that best suit your values and trying to shop local and small where possible.

However, I wouldn’t beat yourself up if you buy from these brands, either. After all, the greater the demand for eco-friendly products, the more money they will invest in that side of their business – and take away profits from the less sustainable products.

No matter where you are on your journey, though, every little helps! Keep going and, for more tips on student living, click here.

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When not stringing words together, can usually be found on the local beach with her cocker spaniel pup, Huey.