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

By Angelika Pokovba
April 22, 2020
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Sustainable Habits That Aren't Always as Sustainable as You Think: tote bag with plants, coffee cups, and groceries
Credit: Getty Images/Julia_Sudnitskaya

The prevalence of greenwashing—the marketing tactic of labeling something as environmentally friendly for a better profit—makes it hard for eco-conscious consumers to navigate everything from grocery stores to beauty counters. It’s becoming increasingly harder to act and shop responsibly for our planet, especially when the gatekeepers of the green revolution might actually be misinformed—or only providing half the story.

Simple, everyday activities we thought were helping the planet may actually be costing it, due to incorrect labeling, 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.

1
Using Tote Bags

The Mistakes: Perhaps no item of daily use has been as criticized as the plastic bag, and the obvious substitute has become a simple cotton tote bag. But the wholesome image is a complex one that looks at immediate versus long-term effects, the amount of resources wasted, and the levels of pollution produced. 

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. The result is a highly resource-costly product.

What to Do Instead: Before you toss your tote bags, embrace the fact that 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.

2
Drinking Almond Milk

The Mistakes: Almond milk is a popular and delicious non-dairy milk substitute. But what many almond milk drinkers don’t realize that it’s right up there as 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 if your goal is to drink the most sustainable milk product possible.

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.

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

3
Shopping Eco-Friendly Fashion (Without All the Facts)

The Mistakes: 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, and 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. Transparent production is the industry’s key because it ensures sustainability and ethical conditions down the line. In terms of clothing, the general rules are: If it’s stretchy, it’s not natural; natural threads leave the smallest impact on the planet; 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, and Sustainable Made.” Smaller brands, such as For Days, Sonia Carrasco, Warp & Weft, Collina Strada, Tact & Stone, and Bottle Top, among others, 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 vintage or used clothing, too—here are a pro’s top tips for your next thrift store spree.

4
Aspirational Recycling

The Mistakes: 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 all 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 and 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. (Psst, if you need help sorting, here’s a guide for how to (properly) recycle 80+ everyday items.)

What to Do Instead: You can find your city’s recycling guidelines on government websites (some include decals you can download for easy reference). But remember, soft plastics such as cling wrap, items with food residue, and to-go coffee cups are still non-recyclable (here’s what to do with these materials instead). 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.

RELATED: How to Recycle 9 Things You Can’t Just Toss in the Recycling Bin

5
Replacing Everything You Own With “Sustainable” Options

The Mistakes: 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 landfill.

What to Do Instead: The best kind of thinking: You probably already have what you need. If you do want to replace anything, don’t throw it away. Donate and sell things, up-cycle old pieces, or turn them into art. Search Pinterest for endless craft projects; look for tutorials on websites like Upcycle That; and check out Real Simple’s suggestions of new uses for old things (here’s what to do with old 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.

6
Assuming Ride Share Apps Are the Greenest Option

The Mistakes: 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 most of the time, the only thing you’re saving is a penny in our pocket. Ride hailing has proven to increase congestion and traffic, shows 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 ultimate number of miles travelled and greenhouse gasses emitted actually end up being higher; as the fare can be cheaper, drivers roam around and increase their traveled miles. Further, 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: The frustration of an overly long Pool ride is similar to the letdown that carpooling rides do not contribute to the planet’s health as expected. For those with Mother Earth top of mind, the best options, when available, are still walking, biking, or taking public transit.

RELATED: Women Are Willing to Pay More Than Men for Sustainable Airline Travel, a Study Finds

7
Falling for Every “Natural” or “Sustainable” Food Label

The Mistakes: The upward trend toward healthy eating and organic produce has yielded a whopping number of “all-natural” and “sustainably produced” brands that, sadly, aren’t all up to par with their labels. By immediately gravitating to only “organic” products, you’re not always helping your body or the planet. “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.

What to Do Instead: The ideal situation: If you can grow it, you can eat it, but the reality is far from it. When in doubt, the terms and labels that indicate a brand can be trusted include “Certified Organic” and the “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 that are most important to buy organic or pesticide-free.”

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

8
Trusting All Clean Beauty and Wellness Products

The Mistakes: 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.” 

RELATED: 7 Zero Waste Beauty Brands Helping to Keep Plastics Out of Our Oceans

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 rule of thumb: the fewer ingredients, the better. If the packaging isn’t recyclable, the product likely isn’t perfect 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.

And, very relevant right now, it’s important to use plant-based hand sanitizer if ever available, since the common isopropyl alcohol-based sanitizer is made from petroleum. Finally, when possible (as with Bathing Culture) refill your beauty products instead of buying newly repackaged items.

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