It’s all so confusing!

I was having a chat with an Eco friend of mine a couple of weeks ago about an upcoming event where she is giving a talk about sustainability. The confusion and revelations from this chat made me think now would be a great time to readdress the great big kerfuddle that is ‘green’ marketing terminology.

Let’s face it, life is complex enough. We have to juggle making a living with trying to have fun while advertising and the media come at us from all angles every day with snippets of info we are supposed to comprehend. It’s no shock that with all that info flitting around in the air that we sometimes end up totally confused by it.

A certainty

When it comes to the environment the complexity of issues is a whole other level up. There is one certainty, but it’s a certainty most don’t want to hear because it shakes the core of out morality and goes against a very human urge to care for one another.

We are past our carrying capacity as a species if all people were to live as we do in developed nations.

At 7 billion strong we have far more people than the planet can comfortably support if all were to live as the average Australian or Americans does (you can learn lots about this in the video above but it’s a very ‘science’ look at the idea). Hypothetically we could shift a few of us around and ask a bunch of us to give some of our money, food, and water to others- or even address it from another angle by asking all to adopt clean energy, permaculture practices, live in smaller accomodation and eat a plant based diet. But the reality is that many people wouldn’t be keen on this. It’s also difficult to say to those who have worked long and hard in developing nations to attain wealth that they (the new middle classes) aren’t allowed the things they have been making for developed nations for years. It’s hardly ethical to say to someone ‘make me this car/sweater/novelty Christmas hat’ year after year then when the person finally has enough money to buy their own to say ‘actually… all the cars, sweaters and hats you made for me are polluting the air, water, and clogging up landfill so you will have to catch the bus, rent a sweater and never wear a novelty hat’.

The grey areas of ethics and population.

If many nations were to continue with business as usual the only option for all to have an equal share of resources and western standards of living would be to get rid of a huge number of people from the planet. As we have no other planet to put people on the ethics of removing people from Earth is questionable from a very basic standpoint and unthinkable at the level of who gets to decide who stays and goes. Another way to reduce a population decades down the track is to either cap or ban people from having babies. The cap practice was introduced in China with the ‘one child’ policy and was an interesting real-world study in ethics. While having below replacement rate children (which is one child) you can reduce population growth and make resources spread further but you create a host of questionable outcomes. One of which in China was an uneven gender spread with a favouring for boys over girls and in some cases infanticide or abandonment of unwanted baby girls. As you can see there is little surprise that no one wants to tackle these grey areas as they are some very tough issues to face and there is no easy way to make an ethical decision.


So why the big lesson in media and population Growth?

While this post is about the terminology of conscious fashion it’s main purpose is to highlight that the world is generally confused. Short of knowing where you live and your name there aren’t too many things out there in black and white decision making land. Most are shrouded in grey areas. I could sit here and attempt to tell you the best way to buy fashion but truthfully I don’t have a specific answer. There are too many factors to take into account. Let’s look as some of these complex and loaded terms so that you can make your own critically assessed purchasing decisions.

  • Green: We all know this is a colour and most of us are able to identify what the colour looks like, but it’s also a very confusing and common marketing term. When something is described as being ‘green’ there is an association or assumption that it is more environmentally friendly than another option on the market. However, that’s about as far as the term goes. You can apply the term to anything you like, no matter how little or how much positive or neutral environmental impact it has.
  • Eco: Just like ‘green’ the word ‘eco’ is a vague marketing term that loosely links a product or an idea with having environmentally friendly credentials. There is no ruling on what environmental credentials a label has to have to call an item ‘eco’ friendly. But there is an assumption that there is at least one point of environmentally friendly design (like non chemical dyes or recycled packaging) or considerations in the manufacturing process or end of lifespan disposal (examples may be closed loop production or biodegradation of unwanted product).
  • Sustainable: This term is a little complicated because like ‘green’, it’s become a bit of a marketing buzz word. There are levels of sustainability and designers can call products sustainable with something as simple as a having a recycled element, or as complicated and holistic as cradle to cradle design processes. The key to shopping sustainable is to identify all the sustainable elements that a garment may have. Are there considerations of the environment in all stages -from birth to death-  (or rebirth in the case of items that are recycled at end of life)? The more environmental consideration the more sustainable the item really is. Ideally a totally sustainable item will have no negative environmental impact (or possibly a net positive environmental impact).
  • Organic: Fortunately this is one area of labelling where businesses are required to be accountable. If something is certified organic it is created without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals. Certified items are checked and validated by an external company or body. Remember that there are ways of marketing that will change how ‘organic’ something is. Many beauty products are advertised as ‘organic’ and may say in the fine print that they only have some organic ingredients. Same with clothing. It might be an organic cotton mixed with a traditional polyester. Just read the fine print to ensure you are getting what you wanted.
  • Ethical: Items that are made without comprising ethics of people and/or animals are sometimes marketed as ‘ethical’. It’s a little confusing because sometimes people include environmental ethics in this category. Generally speaking though ethical items are either made without exploitative labour and/or animal products. Some items are certified ‘Ethical’ (and example of an accreditation scheme is Ethical Clothing Australia), which means that you can buy items listed by these types of schemes knowing that they have been externally verified.
  • Fair Trade: Yay! Fair Trade is another labelling term that has a series of external accreditation schemes associated with it. Depending on where you live and what you are purchasing there are different fair trade labels you will see. Fair Trade items are generally made in a way that benefits those in the supply chain financially and ethically. I recommend reading the post linked here for more info on the finer details of these types of certifications.
  • Vegan: For items to be Vegan they have to be free from animal products. It’s easy to know that you are shopping your cruelty free values when you find vegan items but you can’t always be assured that Vegan items are planet or people friendly unless they provide other evidence or certification. Many cheap or ‘fast fashion’ items are rightfully and accurately labeled Vegan even if they were made in unethical sweatshop conditions from non biodegradable synthetic materials. While Vegan items are better for animals they don’t always mean environmentally friendly or made with human ethics in mind. So make sure that you are aware of this consideration when shopping Vegan. Don’t get swayed by a ‘Vegan’ sticker on a chain store item. Sometimes it’s just a really easy way to get a well meaning animal lover to buy cheap fast-fashion landfill fodder.

I hope that this helps to clarify. Of course this is just a interpretation of the labelling schemes and they can mean different things to different people. Is there a term that confuses you? Got something to add? Share below.