Green versus greenwash. Will humanity collectively agree that behavioural change is the crux of survival?
World leaders are at COP26 as I write this and there is a sense of desperation amongst environmentalists for global action to limit our carbon emissions so we can reach a 1.5 degree rise in global temperatures rather than the projected 2.7 degree rise. While technology and innovation will certainly play a role in reducing or sequestering emissions what we desperately need to examine is our behaviour – from corporate greed right down to individual purchases.
Climate change solutions can be a complex beast when you scratch the surface, but there are also easy solutions, like eating more plant-based foods, reducing food waste, travelling less, consuming less products and making from scratch more often at home.
Many “green” solutions propose that we can continue to live the same lifestyles with eco-products. It’s a rabbit hole of complications and that just don't add up.
It is the values we espouse in humanity: to be wealthy, drive big cars, wear flash clothes, eat lots of steak and beef burgers, that will be our ultimate downfall.
The answer is more about cumulative action around simplifying lifestyles.
We also need governments to be brave and decouple materials from economic growth, then plan for degrowth. Which government is going to be brave enough to plan for that in their communications plan?
Grassroots Climate Action
Grassroots climate action is where my heart and business sense lie. I run a small social enterprise called The ReCreators which focuses on upcycling (creative reuse) and earns its income delivering skills-based workshops. The workshops teach people how to live a low-carbon lifestyle through crafting and skills for crafting.
As someone who feels incredible environmental guilt (perhaps leftover from a Catholic upbringing), I have spent my time researching circular economy solutions, trying to understand the difference between greenwashing and a new way of living. There is endless data on complex scientific and mathematical calculations which deliver ambiguous information to the common person. So how to make sense of it all and am I doing the right thing with my eco-business?
I want to use this article to take you on a summary of my learning journey around green versus greenwash.
Interconnected Planetary Boundaries
When thinking about the benefits of upcycled versus new, I think about all the components and processes that go into new products that are made of virgin materials versus a product that is made using upcycling and repurposing.
Simply explained, upcycling is not merely about diverting waste from landfill, it is about the consideration of everything to do with the life cycle of a product: the land upon where the resource grew which displaced varies native species; the sprays, fertilisers and water usage; the global transportation during manufacture up to the sale of the product; the emissions through usage and finally then what happens to the materials at end of life.
And then I came across the planetary boundaries concept which solidified my understanding and more importantly had scientific measurements behind it. Luckily, there is now a series on Netflix with David Attenborough called Breaking Boundaries which will verbally and visually explain this theory.
The earth has nine defined boundaries that we cannot overstep in order to keep a safe operating space for humanity.
These boundaries are: climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, freshwater depletion, nitrates/phosphorus levels for soil/water, land use, ozone depletion, chemical pollution, and atmospheric aerosols.
Whenever you buy something new – many of our planetary boundaries are affected.
Te Ao Maori Perspective
Understanding climate action is complex due to the interconnections between Earth-Mother (Papatūānuku) and the people (tangata). The Te Ao Maori perspective holds true to the theory of circular economics. Without being a scientist, I feel holistically the connection of working with and not against nature as a human being who is a mother and creates small human beings.
Circular Economy vs Linear Economy
Approximately 90% of the products we purchase are part of a take-make-use-dump linear economy, many of which are single use. In a linear economy, materials are extracted, manufactured into a product or packaging, used once and then end up in landfill (or worse still, our waterways).
Circular, or closed loop, economies redefine growth by focusing on the wider economic, environmental, and social benefits by:
- Designing out waste
- Keeping materials in use for as long as possible
- Designing regeneratively (will it break down naturally?)
- An abundance of single use items
- Designing a plethora products for a short life and dumping them for newer models
- Using materials that do not break down but are cheap to extract.
Scientific Calculations – Life Cycle Assessment
Are all circular solutions the best sustainable solution?
Not everything that could be considered circular is necessarily better for the planet. For example, recycling hasn't been the perfect remedy that it was touted to be. Recycling requires significant investment, energy, infrastructure (reverse logistics) and consumer awareness. It is not the catch-all solution when it comes to managing waste.
Some solutions, like greenwashing, just encourage those with disposable income to alleviate their conscience and allow them to buy more stuff they don't need. Some offerings just allow bad consumer behaviour to continue and don't encourage the basics of refuse, reduce, reuse.
When considering materials, we need to shift our thinking towards our behaviour and not just composition. Instead of the simplistic: plastic is evil, cardboard is the future, we need to focus on the environmental and social impact of our goods and services across their lifetime.
One way to do this is by using the Life Cycle Assessment tool to evaluate the inputs and outputs of a product from its raw material extraction, through to manufacture, transportation, ongoing use, and until the end of its life – where it either gets reused, recycled or thrown away.
This detailed science-led approach allows us to compare and contrast the varying degrees of emissions from the solutions available to us.
A great example is NZ Post examining their single-use packaging options. Unfortunately, this exercise did not include a reusable option. The result being that a NZ recycled plastic bag was actually the lowest emissions option.
The goal I have for my impact business is to help raise awareness about the benefits of a circular economy. At The ReCreators we reduce and reuse our stuff and we rethink our packaging and materials This takes time, energy and resources.
The area of environmental business can be one of great complexity, but for the average person, there are some easy and simple rules to live by.
Less is more.
Spend your time with people having experiences and not on possessions and how you or your house looks.
Grow your own vegies and compost scraps for healthy soil. Be creative and learn to make rather than buy. Eat a more plant-based diet, walk and cycle more.
All of these will lead to a healthier lifestyle too.
Refuse, reduce, reuse and creatively upcycle!