Greenwashing is back. As concern about climate change, pollution, habitat destruction and species extinction rises, so too are spurious claims about saving the planet.
Terms like “sustainable”, “biodegradable”, “compostable” and “circular” increasingly pepper the press releases arriving in Dezeen’s inbox. The claims are mostly nonsense. When our reporters follow up with questions asking for more details, brands tend to go suspiciously quiet.
The problem is that terms like these are not well understood, and in some cases have never been precisely defined. They are therefore open to abuse, both accidental and deliberate.
As a blanket term, sustainability is “hard to define,” as the Financial Times stated in a recent report on the rise of corporate greenwashing. This didn’t stop Italian brand Kartell from announcing a “fully sustainable” bioplastic version of the classic Componibili storage unit earlier this year.
When applied at a macro level, the adjective “sustainable” is a meaningful, if extremely ambitious, term: humans can aspire to inhabit planet earth in a sustainable way, living in harmony with nature and managing resources so they never run out. A company can aspire to have zero negative impact on the environment.
But when applied to a pair of shoes, or an office building, the word is at best meaningless. How can a bedside table be sustainable? What is it sustaining, beyond the consumer’s illusion that they are making a difference?