Just like with anything that sparks a 180-degree lifestyle change, this one started with a video. In 2015, marine biologist Christine Figgener posted a video of her team re-moving a piece of plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nose. People really only started paying attention this year when the video resurfaced on our timelines. To express our outrage about plastic straws, people turned to alternatives such as bamboo straws, glass straws and 2018’s unofficial product of the year, metal straws.
Some local cafés adopted the lifestyle choice and replaced their plastic straws en masse. Individual consumers even stocked up on them — one for each bag, maybe — to carry around. It looked like a perfect solution to the waste problem, but it didn’t come without some resistance.
People had a problem with metal straws, saying that the carbon footprint of their production is actually greater than plastic straws. They even tallied the amount of water it takes to wash metal straws over and over again, as though saving water is more important than lessening waste (spoiler: they’re both important). The point is to avoid single-use products in order to consume and buy less.
But we are consumers, after all, and the law of supply and demand proved to be more powerful. All of a sudden, sustainability became a strong marketing tool, as the 2018 reports show. For example, Unilever’s sustainable line of products grew by 46 percent just last year. Nielsen reported in 2015 that 66 percent of consumers are willing to shell out more money if they know that the product is coming from a sustainable brand. Many businesses were quick to adapt and started selling more “sustainable” products, even creating a physical consumer haven for reusable goods.
Sustainability isn’t just manufacturing or reselling reusable things.
On one hand, it’s helpful for people who want to make the lifestyle change to have all their preferred products under one roof. Imagine: a cute, green department store that will awaken your inner Captain Planet. But on the other hand, sustainability has become the marketing tool du jour. It’s basically corporate social responsibility and marketing contained under one giant bubble. It’s every CEO’s wildest dream. But, as with anything that involves labels, it doesn’t come without consequences.
Contrary to popular belief, sustainability isn’t just manufacturing or reselling reusable things. It’s not just about making clothes with organic cotton or upcycling products. Sustainability also extends to business practices. For example, a fast fashion brand releases a line of “green” products. They use upcycled fabric and organic cotton to make their clothes. Nice, right? But if you go a little deeper, you find out that their operations might not be as clean as they claim to be. The documentary The True Cost deep-dives into the processes of some of these brands. The unfair treatment, the unsafe work environments and low wages only prove that just because a sub-fashion line uses organic cotton, they’re not necessarily sustainable.
The University of Florida says that sustainability should be an intersection between three things: economic value, stewardship of the environment, and social responsibility. Simonetta Lein of Forbes.com echoes this: “Environmental, economic and social — each of which must be taken into consideration for a true sustainability strategy.”
Social responsibility means treating your customers, employees and partners with respect. It means being transparent with your operations.
Brands tend to focus on the first two and forget the latter. Social responsibility means treating your customers, employees and partners with respect. Aside from paying people fairly and having integrity, it also means being transparent with your operations and dropping labels that don’t necessarily reflect the company values.
If you can’t stand behind it fully, don’t use sustainability as a marketing tool. It’s not nice taking advantage of the planet for capitalism. We all know we’ve done enough of that already.