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The Dirty Truth We Are Trying to Green Wash
As sustainability seeps into mainstream culture, and the responsibility to double check claims falls on us, it begs the question can we truly ethically consume?
11 June, 2021

Roughly 6 million participated globally in 2019’s September week of action, ardent international protest and school strikes. Despite the unique challenges 2020 posed, undeterred, the movement adapted with the aid of social media, online meetings, and socially distanced sit ins. Through strikes scheduled in 3,500 locations worldwide, ‘Fridays for Future’ is now emblematic of an insatiable hunger for change. Symptomatic of a youth anxious about the future that they will soon be left to contend with.

Slipping into any given thrift store on Brick Lane in London, it is easy to spot. From sifting through vintage band t shirts, previously owned eccentric silk scarves and to donning a bright red beret or checking the fit of vintage Levi’s jeans- it is not difficult discern who this careful curation is aiming to please. Although, thrifting is an inherently sustainable practice that also cuts on cost, its gentrification has bought about an interesting dilemma. Mass thrifting has come under recent fire, for hiking prices and siphoning off ‘good items’ to be later resold. For those that rely on thrift stores for affordable and quality clothing to get by, this is not necessarily ideal. With apps like Depop reporting a tripling in traffic and Oxfam’s online store growing by 111%– the demand from the age group of 16-25 is clear. However, the newfound class cut off means that those with lower disposable income are now forced to look to fast fashion for lower prices. Ultimately, this means that those looking to ethically thrift may have to do some extra research on where they do so, compare prices and re-think thrifting more holistically, beyond the tag of ‘eco-friendly’ that preys on our fast-fashion consumer guilt.

However, thrifting is only one facet of ethical consumption that often places the burden on the consumer to discern between what is truly ethical, possibly greenwashed and ultimately sustainable. Brands are quick to create ‘environmentally conscious’ products to boost sales, sometimes only going as far as to place the same product in green packaging. Or even with unabashed hypocrisy, like H&M’s heavily criticised sustainable line. Although indicators like fair-trade logos are a great tool to check authenticity, often copy-cat organisations with similar looking trademarks attempt to fool the average buyer with an imitation stamp of approval.

As sustainability seeps into mainstream culture, and the responsibility to double check claims falls on us, it begs the question can we truly ethically consume? Greenwashing, unfortunately, exists in all aspects of our lives. From university to the phone you use to the car you ride, chances are your inclination to be ethical has been exploited.

Bloomberg reported last week, that with the pandemic cutting a hole in university finances, UCL is taking on a unique approach to offset their loss. Looking to appease students and promote itself as a ‘sustainability leader’, with a 40-year sustainability bond, it is following suit from universities like MIT. Adding on to the sales of sustainability bonds, that have grown from 10 billion in 2017 to 75 billion last year.

At Kings, the aim is to recycle 70% of waste and many projects have been piloted by the university to confront all three aspects of sustainable consumption- reduce, reuse, recycle. A website called ‘warp-it’ has been launched: an online sharing platform where redundant materials or unwanted furniture/ equipment etc. can be traded. Due to it being in its burgeoning stage, the site is yet to open to outside charities all though it maintains plans to do so. King’s also rewards those with a desire to create change within their community; by signing up to be a sustainability champion you can attend free workshops and even receive accreditation for exceptional work.

However, despite these moves, general waste from Kings continues to be processed through an Energy from Waste (EfW) plant, conducting a criticized incineration policy that can de-incentivize recycling and release toxic pollutants into the atmosphere, such as dioxins that resist being broken down. Although the power collected from these plants is accumulated into our electricity grid, some say our energy production needs to continue its move towards renewable sources that don’t produce harmful by-products such as fly ash.

Often the picture of sustainability in our homes, offices, and schools, is varied and grey. It requires our own examination into where our waste is going and the varying merits of the policies they may maintain.  

Here, an interesting paradox emerges, revealing how consumers simultaneously hold both more and less power than we think. With the potential to sway demand and transform markets, this demand is also readily manipulated and to be truly sustainable is a challenge. Especially considering the staunch income barriers that gatekeep the many ethical choices that exist as alternatives today.

 A nascent green market susceptible to consumer fatigue and many giving up on trying to make any ethical purchase at all, means that protective legislation is the crucial buffer we need.

In the UK, the Advertising Standards Agency set a precedent by confronting a BMW campaign that implied ‘low’ emissions to curtail the reality of it being more than double the lowest emission car on the market.

New EU regulations are hoping to enforce stricter laws around the use of words such as ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’, expecting greater proof of those claims in comparison to other products of its kind.

However, with a rapid boom, it is understandable that regulations may be a step behind, leaving an open space in the meantime, for misuse.

Unfortunately, for now, the task may be left to you, in the aisle of your local grocery store, to decide how biodegradable the packaging in your hand truly is and to debate where exactly your favourite bar wrapper will end up.

Janhavi Modak, 1st-year Comparative Literature student, King's College London

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