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The Duck Test
If it looks sustainable, is it?
*Welcome to our mini-series, where I’ll share Examples of Greenwashing. Over time, we’ll collect and identify examples of greenwashing in practice so that we can both be better at spotting greenwashing as consumers and understanding how to avoid greenwashing as leaders of a movement for better, more ethical, and sustainable business.
If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck, right?
If the product looks sustainable and sounds sustainable, it must be, right?
Nike was recently hit with a class action lawsuit over misleading sustainability claims.
Investigations found that “of the 2,452 Nike ‘Sustainability’ Collection Products…only 239 products are made with any recycled materials.”
Let’s focus on this aspect of the class action suit:
The suit states, “The products that do contain recycled material are predominantly made with recycled polyester and recycled nylon, two materials that the case emphasizes are “still plastic” and thus not biodegradable.”
Further, the case says, “Synthetic materials such as polyester, a form of plastic derived from oil, shed plastic particles—known as microplastics—as they continue to be washed and worn.
The suit says these materials are “a prime source of microplastic pollution,” especially harmful to marine life. And they are incredibly pervasive; it was reported just a couple of years ago microplastics were found in the placentas of unborn babies.
Just because something is recycled does not mean it’s sustainable.
Despite some of Nike’s more egregious misrepresentations of their products, this point here is vastly more pervasive throughout the fashion industry.
Recycled polyester. Sustainable? How are you or I supposed to know? I don’t have any expertise in cutting-edge sustainable materials.
Adidas boasts they are now using 96% recycled polyester in all their products and are headed for 100%.
Patagonia likewise uses recycled polyester, claiming that as of fall 2023, 95% of all their polyester used is recycled.
Is recycled polyester better than virgin polyester? Sure. Using recycled polyester could reduce emissions by 32% compared to virgin polyester.
However, it gets complicated.
Recycled or not, polyester is still going to shed microplastics. And as well to add more complexity, recycled polyester is sourced from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, which apparently can be effectively recycled up to 10 times.
And so, while fashion sustainability execs such as Seana Hannah at Nike tell The Guardian, “We divert more than one billion plastic bottles on average a year from landfills,” by taking that plastic out of a more efficient system and bringing it into the fashion industry an incredibly wasteful system, they might be accelerating the rate at which that material makes it to the landfill.
What happens to Nike products at the end of their life? Are they being recycled? Or tossed away?
Regardless, it’s essential to know that just because a company calls its material sustainable or uses language that would imply it is (e.g., recycled), it doesn’t mean it’s sustainable.