Recycling doesn’t make you eco-friendly: 10 habits that aren’t actually sustainable

Many companies are guilty of ‘greenwashing,’ the act or practice of making a product, policy, or activity appear to be more environmentally friendly than it actually is

Collage about Recycling

Many companies claim to be champions of sustainability, but, in reality, they are the complete opposite. This practice is known as “greenwashing,” a term used to describe a false or misleading claim or action made by an organization about the positive impact that a company, product or service has on the environment. The European Commission wants to confront these practices and has proposed legislation to punish the deceptive eco-friendly image that hundreds of brands have adopted in recent years.

But the sustainability discourse has also changed the habits of the general population, influencing the way many of us think about what is good for the environment. The truth is that mindless recycling does not make you eco-friendly. Here are 10 habits that are not actually sustainable.

Buying organic (but pre-distressed) jeans

Fabricating a pair of jeans requires between 2,000 and 4,000 liters of water. Brands have begun marketing jeans that use little or no water. But what is rarely mentioned is the process of fading indigo, which usually requires toxic compounds that cause chronic illnesses in garment workers. For a short time, the media warned about the stone-washing technique, which causes silicosis in workers. And recently, a video went viral on Twitter showing a woman in a mask bleaching and distressing a pair of jeans, her face and arms covered with blue fiber and dye.

Not everything natural is sustainable

Natural dyes may be biodegradable, but that doesn’t mean that cultivating them is good for the planet. The Higg index, one of the most used ways of measuring products’ sustainability, considers, for example, that the production of silk is devastating for the planet, due to the quantity of water involved and the “hole” it causes in biodiversity: silkworms are killed and their cocoons saved to make the fabric. But cashmere takes the prizes. Considered one of the finest and most luxurious knits that exists, its demand has led to the mistreatment of goats. The industry also threatens biodiversity in Mongolia and some parts of China. The cheaper the cashmere, the more cruelty there tends to be in its creation.

There are no cosmetics without chemicals

The trend of organic beauty is full of shadows. The “cruelty-free” label doesn’t mean much: animal testing has been illegal in the US and EU for years, and it isn’t possible to make cosmetics without chemicals. In fact, creating a molecule in a lab causes less pollution than large-scale cultivation of ingredients that will later be mixed with chemicals in the same lab.

Out-of-control recycling

Another increasingly common practice with a shadowy side. Currently, garments that are made with a mix of materials cannot be recycled, so depositing them in their own container is a waste of time. According to the Organization of Consumers and Users, only 0.1% of clothes dropped off for recycling in Spain is recycled. “Upcycling” is done with excess fabric, not transformed garments. The best bet, in this case, is donating, not recycling.

Labels with half-truths

Greenwashing has steered the discourse about sustainability towards a focus only on raw materials. But not everything organic is eco-friendly, and recycled products aren’t necessarily completely recycled. And, of course, not everything eco-friendly uses fair labor. We have gotten used to reading labels only for the material and not the origin: “organic” garments made in Bangladesh or Cambodia, “eco-friendly” knits mass-produced in China. Even if the labor conditions in those regions were humane, which does not tend to be the case, how much pollution is caused by transporting and distributing them? It’s the same as buying sustainable agricultural products from other continents.

A plastic bag isn’t a big deal

Several studies by the European Union have concluded that making a plastic bag causes three times more pollution than making a paper one. The latter should be used three times to match the impact of the former. Though paper is biodegradable, and plastic isn’t, after the last decade of anti-plastic campaigns, almost everyone uses the material multiple times, while throwing out single-use paper bags and cups. There is no clean solution in this case, but there should be a balance between the rejection of plastic and embrace of paper.

A cloth bag doesn’t make you eco-friendly

“Do you know what it means to produce that cloth, transports it? All that cotton that we don’t know where it’s produced, we don’t know where it’s assembled, we don’t know where it’s dyed, do you think it’s more eco-friendly than plastic?” The video artist Rodrigo Cuevas explained in a video last fall why he would not include more tote bags among his merchandise. The alternative to plastic or leather isn’t so great, taking into account that they’re now passed out on every corner, we accumulate them in closets and no one asks how they’re made. Logically, producing a cotton bag uses more resources than producing a plastic one. To mitigate the impact, we should use the same cloth bag 7,000 times. Do the math.

Do we have to reject synthetics?

There aren’t answers to this question yet, but it’s true that synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester, though they aren’t biodegradable, are the easiest to recycle. The case of so-called vegan leather, however, is more complicated: most of it is made with acrylics that are highly polluting (almost as much as the toxic mass curing of leather). The solution lies in avoiding leather, both natural and synthetic. If buying the latter, make sure that it comes from plants.

Unofficial stamps

If supposedly sustainable fashion likes one thing, it’s certifications, whether for quality, use of organic materials or the absence of pesticides. But few of these certifications are official. Many of them are made up by the brands themselves or related organizations. Only those managed by governmental organizations, like the Cradle 2 Cradle certificate — which certifies that a garment is completely recycled and recyclable — are trustworthy, but legal frameworks around the issue are still lacking.

The plastic water bottle

Used plastic water bottles seem like fashion’s favorite element today. Brands advertise how many they’ve turned into fabric. But wouldn’t it be more useful to turn those used bottles into new bottles?

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