Is That Product Really Sustainable? Need-to-Know Tips for Becoming a Savvy, Sustainable Shopper
Experts break down the keywords and red flags when identifying eco-conscious products on the market.
Emphasis on buying and making sustainable products has grown so much in recent years that the label itself is often questioned for its honesty. Even if someone wanted to become a more environmentally conscious shopper—it’s hard to know where to begin. How do you identify a sustainable product when it’s difficult to even pin down the meaning and properties of sustainability? In an effort to avoid greenwashing and understand what a sustainable product actually is, we asked experts to share their tips for recognizing eco-conscious products when shopping across categories.
Learn what it means, realistically, to be a sustainable consumer.
For anyone looking to develop and maintain a more sustainable lifestyle, everyday product consumption must be revisited. It requires getting curious about where things come from, how materials are sourced, how long they last, and whether or not they’re reusable or recyclable.
“I define sustainability as attentiveness toward the planet as well as its inhabitants,” explains Gittemarie Johansen, a sustainability advocate, writer, and lecturer. “Practically, that means taking [many] things like material sourcing, natural resources, production waste, chemical usage, wastewater management, shipping, lifespan, disposal, and recycling, into consideration when making or buying a product.” Johansen, the sustainable living expert for online courses site Tilleo, teaches a virtual course about living a cleaner lifestyle.
Johansen’s primary advice, even before identifying key clean factors in a product, is to first refuse things: things we don’t need and things that are not sustainably made or sourced. If sustainability laws existed, learning to say “no” to harmful products would be first on the list.
Understand the inevitable gray areas.
Educating yourself also means understanding the nuances of trying to live as sustainably as possible. Johansen admits that things aren’t always so black-and-white. For something to be entirely sustainable, everything involved in its creation, lifespan, and impact would have to be as well. You’ll find that no product can be truly, perfectly, 100-percent sustainable, as there will pretty much always be waste involved at some point of a product’s lifecycle.
For example, the newsletter Fashion x Sustainability, by Rajan Roy, digs deeper into the nuances at play, particularly in the fashion industry. “Evaluating the environmental impact of every product is rife with contradictions and complexities,” Roy says. “Maybe you switch a T-shirt line to organic cotton, but what about the water consumption in the production of the cotton? Maybe you have a new line of recycled plastic leggings, but are having them shipped from the manufacturer.”
But committing to greener living is about doing small things where and when you can, including doing the work to identify and buy sustainable products. It comes down to us as consumers to examine products’ overall impact on the environment and to find ways to mitigate it. Don’t just opt for something with an “eco” or “green” label slapped on it; it starts all the way back in the supply chain, where a product begins to build its environmental effect. Be curious, do your homework, and be smart about weighing the pros and cons.
Read between the marketing lines.
Taking a magnifying glass to a brand or specific product’s marketing can help you identify red flags that indicate potential sustainability inconsistencies.
A few red flags to question while shopping:
- Big brands are inherently less sustainable due to mass production.
- Greenwashing: If a product is labeled “green,” “eco,” or “sustainable” without further explanation or context, question it and do more research.
- Plastic packaging without any mention of being “upcycled.”
- Ingredients you can’t pronounce are much less likely to be clean or sustainable.
- Products made far from where you’re buying them: It’s had to be shipped, adding to our carbon dioxide count. Try to choose products that have been made closer.
- Miscellaneous ingredients and materials to avoid: palm oil, microplastics, parabens, and synthetic fibers.
The beauty industry is one in which it can be easier to weed out less-than-sustainable brands, ingredients, and products. In fact, lucky for shoppers, education on sustainable methods and standards is often at the forefront of the beauty business.
As a rule of thumb,“[w]e suggest that customers avoid: GMOs, parabens, sulfates, phthalates, PEGs, nanoparticles, mineral oil and synthetic fragrance as these can be harmful to humans (toxic, causing skin irritation, hormones disruption, cancer, etc.) and to the environment,” says clean beauty brand and ocean advocate One Ocean Beauty. This brand uses marine actives in its products and follows the standards of the E.U., where 1,400 harmful ingredients are banned and restricted.
Ask yourself, does a particular tincture, cream, or makeup product contain colors, microplastics, harmful chemicals, or fragrances that could permanently hurt the planet? If you aren’t sure, do some digging.
Value authenticity and transparency.
Transparency is a defining characteristic of genuine sustainability. “Look for transparency, ask questions, find videos of the production and sourcing, and ask for certificates,” says Clarissa Egana, founder of women’s athleisure brand Port de Bras. If a brand (no matter in what industry) is sustainable, it is likely willing to communicate its philosophy and processes openly on its website, to media outlets, and even directly to its customers. A company that claims it’s sustainable should be entirely transparent about their clean efforts and agendas, identifiable through a simple Google search.
Egana launched her brand in 2015 and remains dedicated to minimizing the footprint in the production chain. “The key here is to think bigger, as not only ‘where and how can I do less damage,’ but also ‘where and how can I positively impact my community,’” she says.
Egana sources locally, provides jobs where they’re necessary, supports charities, plants trees, and upcycles as much as possible. These are the types of values and practices to look for in a brand.
Other fashion brands with well-communicated sourcing and production standards include Pangaia, Mola Sasa, allSisters, and others that are typically smaller and practice an honest form of sustainability. Responsible denim brand G-Star Raw continues to push alternative solutions for the cleaner future of fashion. Longchamp is making clean efforts by investing in materials such as repurposed nylon, called ECONYL, in their latest line, Green District.
Clean brands can require effort to spot, but similar themes generally run through all of them.
These keywords are generally good signs:
- Natural and/or organic
- Biodegradable fibers
- Conscious Packaging
- Locally sourced
- Ethically made
- Fair trade
- Slow production
- Follows European environmental regulations (usually much stricter than those stateside)
- Upcycled and/or long lifecycle and/or durability (a common one is ECONYL nylon)
Gravitate toward products or brands marked with third-party certifications.
“Pay attention to third-party certifications that ensure ethical and sustainable production of the product,” Johansen says. Some certifications are clearly visible on a product’s label or packaging. For example, in the food world, choose products that boast being naturally grown, non-GMO certified, and that wear trust-worthy labels such as the USDA Organic Seal. (Read more ways to identify sustainable food brands here and our full breakdown of how to shop for sustainable seafood, both fresh and frozen.)
When shopping for cleaning and household products, look for official labels verifying they've passed a rigorous set of standards, such as the Green Seal ecolabel, ECOLOGO Certification, and the Leaping Bunny logo (which indicates that it hasn't been tested on animals—a logo also found on cruelty-free beauty products).
In many instances, however, you may need to do some research to uncover a product’s quality certifications. The wine and spirits industry, for example, is one where sustainability practices can sometimes be harder to identify—but not because they don’t exist. Quite a few wine and liquor brands run impeccably clean production, but don’t market it blatantly. Macallan whiskey built an entirely new distillery a few years back fueled mostly by renewable energy. Remy Martin cognac has achieved High Environmental Value (an across-the-board agricultural certification) on 85 percent of its farms.
And in the wine world, Bonterra wines has been spearheading the natural wine industry with its organic and biodynamic farming practices. “Our wines readily identify responsible practices with designations like ‘Made with Organic Grapes,’ Organic CCOF Certified, and Demeter Certified Biodynamic,” explains Bonterra’s winemaker Jeff Chichoki. “These certifications mean that an outside governing board is certifying our practices and holding us accountable for sustainable quality.” Wines and spirits are some products where their sustainable life is not easily identifiable off shelf, but sometimes mostly through research.
Get familiar with quietly sustainable brands.
As you become more knowledgeable about what makes a sustainable product, you’ll be able to recognize brands that are intrinsically sustainable but don’t shout it from the rooftops. Poglia is a bespoke lifestyle brand of collectible goods that's entirely sustainable, and whose founder, Max Poglia, prefers to let his materials, techniques, and product quality do the talking. Meso Goods and Artistic Tile, two interior design brands, also check off important, eco-conscious boxes without loudly advertising them.
The bottom line...
Ultimately, what we buy is only one part of our life, and truly clean living requires a holistic change in lifestyle, too.
“Some of the simpler changes one can make to be more sustainable, depending on one's ability, is stuff like refusing single-use plastic, opting for a plant-based diet, making food from scratch rather than buying prepackaged items, picking up trash outside, and voting for politicians with ambitious green policies,” Johansen says. “It's also stuff like making sure not to waste food at home, avoiding fast fashion companies, and supporting local or small independent businesses.”
It’s primarily about saying no to environmentally harmful processes, going local, supporting small-batch production, and using as many resources directly provided by the planet without borrowing from future generations.