These 8 "Sustainable" Habits Aren't as Green as You Might Think—Here's How to Fix Them

Are your efforts to help the planet secretly hurting it? It might be time to rethink a few things.

Sustainable Habits That Aren't Always as Sustainable as You Think: tote bag with plants, coffee cups, and groceries
Photo: Getty Images/Julia_Sudnitskaya

Greenwashing—the marketing tactic of labeling something as environmentally friendly for a better profit—is extremely prevalent. Everywhere from grocery stores to beauty counters, companies are making it harder for eco-conscious consumers to know which products are actually less harmful, and which are just labeled that way. In some cases, the gatekeepers of the green revolution themselves might actually be misinformed.

Simple, everyday activities we thought were helping the planet may actually be costing it, due to incorrect designations, presumed benefits, and shortcomings in scientific research and/or its public availability. So we asked industry experts to weed through some of the most common sustainability myths and mistakes and to share their top ways to improve our habits for a greener future.

01 of 08

Using Tote Bags

The Mistake: Plastic bags have certainly earned their bad rep (they take many years to break down in landfills, among other negative environmental impacts), and the obvious substitute has become a simple cotton tote bag. But the tote bag's wholesome image is a complex one that looks at immediate versus long-term effects, the number of resources wasted, and the levels of pollution produced.

Truth is, a tote bag is a highly resource-costly product. Denmark's Ministry of Health and Food found in 2018 that a natural cotton bag must be used more than 20,000 times—or for about 55 years—before it has the same environmental impact as a lightweight single-use plastic grocery bag. Much of the impact comes from cotton's high demand for water and the use of an ozone-depleting chemical to treat the plant.

What to Do Instead: The best bag to use is one you already own—no matter what it's made from. "It really depends on how many times you're going to use it and, especially with plastic, how carefully you dispose of it once its useful life is over," says sustainable development specialist Francesca Zoppi. "Each little sustainable action we make at this stage is critical, so use the bags that you will reuse the most."

Also, interestingly, the reusable polyurethane bags sold at grocery stores may not be as chic as tote bags, but after being reused only 14 times, they're more sustainable than conventional plastic bags.

02 of 08

Drinking Almond Milk

The Mistake: Non-dairy milk substitutes are better for the environment than cow's milk (less water and land are used to produce them, and they emit less greenhouse gases), and almond milk is a popular and delicious choice. But out of these better options, almonds are one of the most water-demanding crops, causing groundwater depletion and endangering the bee population. Almond trees need to be pollinated, so there is added pressure on commercial bees, which see a 30 percent death rate after season's end due to threats posed by the nine pesticides used on the trees, reports the Pesticide Action Network. While dairy milk still outdoes all plant-based milks by at least three times the environmental output, almond milk isn't its best substitute when it comes to sustainability.

What to Do Instead: In this case, the milk heroes are soymilk—which offers similar amounts of protein to dairy milk—and oat milk. The latter is quite easy to produce: There's already a surplus of the plant because it feeds livestock. While neither option is always entirely pesticide-free, the bottom line is that anything that isn't dairy milk is a more planet-friendly option. And soy and oat are best.

RELATED: Confused About Non-Dairy Milks? Here's a Breakdown of All Your Options

03 of 08

Shopping Eco-Friendly Fashion (Without All the Facts)

The Mistake: In terms of sustainability, fashion is a dicey industry, contributing to an equal amount of greenhouse gas emissions (10 percent of worldwide CO2) as the entire continent of Europe. And the answer is quite clear—shop less and shop better. But how do we deal with brands that have a clean line, but aren't entirely sustainable? Or those that claim to be sustainable, yet still use synthetic fabrics in their pieces? This also includes the entire denim production that uses incredible amounts of water, not to mention dyes. "We, as consumers, need to stop shopping out of compulsion and for the 'need' of a new outfit for a certain event," says Marina Testino, the founder of sustainable fashion brand and digital agency, Point Off View.

What to Do Instead: Watch for red flags. "If a brand is spending all of its money on advertising its sustainable line and not enough on actually integrating sustainability and good environmental practice into their business model, that's when you worry," Testino explains. You may not have the time or energy to do a deep dive into a company's transparency, but there are a few general rules you can follow as a consumer: Natural threads leave the smallest impact on the planet (if it's stretchy, it's not natural); and plant-based dyes are the way to go.

Testino advises consumers to stick to "the four S's of sustainable fashion: simplify, share (or rent), secondary market (i.e., shop second-hand), and sustainable made." For that last "s" look for smaller brands, such as For Days, Sonia Carrasco, Warp & Weft, Collina Strada, Tact & Stone, and Bottle Top. They are proof that sustainable fashion can exist and still be chic—and they're the ones that need the most support. You can always shop for vintage or used clothing, too.

04 of 08

Aspirational Recycling

The Mistake: No matter how pure your intentions, not recycling properly is one of the easiest recycling mistakes to make. "Although not malicious, the act of 'aspirational recycling' is quite harmful to recycling centers' collection protocol," says Yanyan Ji, chief marketing officer at ecoATM, a recycling company for cell phones, MP3 players, or tablets. The result of this aspirational recycling—or wishcycling—is that the entire lot of recyclable products may be tossed in the landfill because of one incorrect item. For example, when you recycle paper goods in a plastic bag, they'll no longer be recycled (you must remove paper goods from plastic bags!). That said, most food packaging indicates its recyclability status with universal arrows arranged in a triangle form. Otherwise, if you can't do it right—or can only guess—don't do it.

What to Do Instead: Find your city's recycling guidelines on the government website (some include decals you can download for easy reference). Soft plastics such as cling wrap, items with food residue, and to-go coffee cups are still non-recyclable. While most Amazon packaging is non-recyclable, its website explains you can bring the packaging to your nearest store drop-off location (but cardboard shipping boxes are recycled like other paper products). For electronic products, keep them out of the recycling bin. Instead, look into private recycling companies like ecoATM (that might even earn you some cash) and Call2Recycle, or check retailers—including Amazon, Apple, Best Buy, and Staples—for electronics recycling opportunities.

05 of 08

Replacing Everything You Own With "Sustainable" Options

The Mistake: While we're lucky to live in a time with more clean options than ever, the problem was never only about the products, but also a culture of overconsumption. Buying dozens of new sustainable items to replace your current ones can escalate the original issues of pollution and incorrect recycling. Replacing less eco-friendly items with options labeled "green" or "sustainable" might make you feel better—and is positive in many instances—but overdoing it contributes to even more trash in a landfill.

What to Do Instead: You probably already have what you need. If you no longer want an item, consider ways to put it to another use–like donating, selling, up-cycling, or turning it into art. Search Pinterest for craft projects; look for tutorials on websites like Upcycle That; and check out Real Simple's suggestions of new uses for takeout chopsticks, toilet paper tubes, and 101 other household items. "At the very least, if you're replacing an item with something else, please dispose of it correctly," Testino adds.

RELATED: The Differences Between Carbon Neutral, Plastic-Free, and Plastic Neutral

06 of 08

Assuming Ride-Share Apps Are the Greenest Option

The Mistake: We can't deny the convenience of ride-share services like Uber and Lyft, and some have touted them as eco-friendly options since they allow passengers to carpool easily. But ride-hailing has proven to increase congestion and traffic, according to a 2017 study from the University of California. In fact, 49 to 61 percent of trips wouldn't have been made at all—or made by walking, biking, or public transit—if the option weren't available. The miles traveled and greenhouse gasses emitted actually end up being higher because cheaper fares enable drivers to increase their travel distance. Similarly, a University of Colorado study found that using ride shares increased the average miles driven by 84 percent for each trip in the city of Denver, potentially affecting other cities on a similar scale.

What to Do Instead: For those with Mother Earth at top of mind, the best options, when available, are still walking, biking, or taking public transit.

RELATED: 7 Sustainable Workout Clothing Brands That Benefit Your Body and the Environment

07 of 08

Falling for Every "Natural" or "Sustainable" Food Label

The Mistake: The upward trend toward healthy eating and organic produce has yielded a whopping number of "all-natural" and "sustainably produced" brands that, sadly, don't live up to their labels. "Products labeled 'natural' may still contain some artificial ingredients, preservatives, hormones, chemicals, etc.," says Emily Borgeest, a certified holistic health coach. "Similarly, products labeled 'green' may be green in one aspect of the food production, but not all." By trying to eat eco-consciously, we might unknowingly be putting pesticides, fertilizers, and prohibited substances onto our plates.

And gravitating to only "organic" products isn't a magic bullet, either. Obviously, the lack of pesticides is a good thing, but organic farming requires more land to produce the same amount of food as conventional farming.

What to Do Instead: When in doubt, the terms and labels that indicate a brand can be trusted include "Certified Organic" and "Green Seal." (Borgeest cites trusted brands including Bob's Red Mill, Siete, Simple Mills, Sir Kensington's, Oatly, Banza, Bell & Evans Organic Chicken, and Justin's.) The best way to avoid being fooled is to read the list of ingredients—if you can't pronounce it, don't eat it. If a product says it's natural but is wrapped in five layers of plastic, question it! The simple rule of thumb, as Borgeest suggests, is to look for pesticide- and chemical-free products, and "familiarize yourself with the dirty dozen—a list of the 12 items of produce with the most pesticides."

RELATED: 6 Things That Are Naturally Antibacterial to Safely Disinfect Your Home

08 of 08

Trusting All Clean Beauty and Wellness Products

The Mistake: Though many beauty brands are doing an amazing job putting the planet first, clean beauty as a whole can often be a lawless realm. "There's no official definition of the word 'natural' when it comes to personal care brands, so watch out for companies that plaster that word all over their packaging," explains Tim Hollinger, co-founder of Bathing Culture. "Part of why bad actors are so common is that the industry is essentially self-regulated, so there is [little] accountability or repercussions for companies saying one thing and doing another."

Watch out for brands with faux wood or plant imagery, and wood-plastic composite containers that are trying to look "natural"—even when their components might not be. The truth lies in the ingredients. Even so, some clean products still pollute with harmful elements that, when rinsed off, continue down the drain. For example, some exfoliants contain grains that don't dissolve in water and add to pollution.

"A few areas where we see challenges are ingredients that are plant-derived but processed into new compounds with petrochemicals," says Hollinger. "On the other side of things, there are some commonly used plants that should be avoided because they're grown in endangered ecosystems."

What to Do Instead: The fewer ingredients, the better. If the packaging isn't recyclable, the product likely isn't perfectly green either. Not every self-proclaimed sustainable beauty brand is actually clean. Check brands out on the Think Dirty app to see what experts say. Hollinger advises against ingredients such as cocamidopropyl betaine (which sometimes gets a green pass), any radish root products, petroleum-based synthetics like fragrances, sodium myreth sulfate, and palm oil, among others. And don't forget about the animals! To guarantee a brand or product is truly cruelty-free and against animal testing, look for the leaping bunny symbol.

Use plant-based hand sanitizer whenever possible, since the common isopropyl alcohol-based sanitizer is made from petroleum. Finally, try to refill your beauty products instead of buying newly repackaged items.

RELATED: How to Correctly Recycle Your Empty Beauty Products

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