Designers' efforts to reduce the environmental impact of their products are being hampered by confusion over terminology and rampant greenwashing, writes Marcus Fairs.

Greenwashing is back. As concern about climate change, pollution, habitat destruction and species extinction rises, so too are spurious claims about saving the planet.

Terms like "sustainable", "biodegradable", "compostable" and "circular" increasingly pepper the press releases arriving in Dezeen's inbox. The claims are mostly nonsense. When our reporters follow up with questions asking for more details, brands tend to go suspiciously quiet.

The problem is that terms like these are not well understood, and in some cases have never been precisely defined. They are therefore open to abuse, both accidental and deliberate.

As a blanket term, sustainability is "hard to define," as the Financial Times stated in a recent report on the rise of corporate greenwashing. This didn't stop Italian brand Kartell from announcing a "fully sustainable" bioplastic version of the classic Componibili storage unit earlier this year.

When applied at a macro level, the adjective "sustainable" is a meaningful, if extremely ambitious, term: humans can aspire to inhabit planet earth in a sustainable way, living in harmony with nature and managing resources so they never run out. A company can aspire to have zero negative impact on the environment.

But when applied to a pair of shoes, or an office building, the word is at best meaningless. How can a bedside table be sustainable? What is it sustaining, beyond the consumer's illusion that they are making a difference?

Most of the time, when brands talk about their products being "sustainable", they are talking comparatively: a piece of furniture that uses fewer resources, generates less pollution and lasts longer is a bit more sustainable (or conversely, a bit less destructive) than other pairs of shoes. This is a step in the right direction, but it is not the destination.

How can a bedside table be sustainable? What is it sustaining?

At Dezeen we grapple with this kind of thing every day. We want to report on products, buildings and materials that seek to tackle global problems, but we don't want to inadvertently promote initiatives that are simply jumping on the bandwagon, or which do more harm than good.

But without clearly agreed definitions, it's hard to effectively challenge claims like that of the mayor of Rome who, when launching a scheme whereby passengers can exchange single-use plastic water bottles for metro tickets, claimed the project proved that the "circular economy is easy to do".

In fact, making products and systems truly circular is extraordinarily hard to do, as designers striving to create products that create no pollution or waste and which nurture natural systems (which is a brief definition of the circular economy) will attest. It takes a lot more than putting a few bottles in a bin.

The growing misuse of language is unhelpful to members of the public who want to make informed purchasing choices. It is also unhelpful to designers, who are already grappling with "designers' paradox". This is the moral hazard central to their profession: how can they most effectively mitigate the damage caused by all the consumable stuff they bring into the world? Especially since all that stuff is the biggest contributor to climate change.

The problem is most acute when it comes to dealing with plastic: as anxiety over plastic pollution rises, the discourse has become polluted by confusion over terminology. This is making it hard for people to do the right thing.

The growing misuse of language is unhelpful to members of the public who want to make informed purchasing choices

One designer told me she had managed to source renewable polypropylene, which is an impossibility, since polypropylene is derived from non-renewable fossil fuels.

Another designer told me that he specifies bioplastics because they are biodegradable, which is an understandable inference from the terms. But this is not true, at least not in the way we commonly understand "biodegradable".

For most people the term means something like "bury it in the garden or chuck it in the ocean and it will break down to nothing before too long". Bioplastics, however, are not inherently biodegradable in this way.

But actually everything is biodegradable, if you give it enough time. If you dump your car in the ocean, it will eventually degrade to zero. The problem is that "enough time" can, for many plastics and bioplastics, mean many hundreds of years.

There is endless confusion about "compostable" plastic. This is plastic that will turn into compost (plus a side order of greenhouse gases), but usually only when put into a special composting machine. If you bury it in your garden or chuck it in the sea, the chances are it won't break down any quicker than regular plastic.

Similarly "recyclable" plastic doesn't mean that it will be recycled, since most domestic waste sorted for recycling ends up in landfill. It is estimated that only around 9 per cent of plastic waste gets recycled.

There are many other terms that are widely misunderstood, and assumptions that are not based on facts.

For example, plenty of people believe that there is a giant floating island of plastic in the north Pacific. Designers have even proposed declaring it a sovereign state with its own passports and money, or setting up giant floating waste-to-power plants to harvest its abundant trash hills.

Plenty of people believe that there is a giant floating island of plastic in the north Pacific

A Google Images search for "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" will confirm this false impression. But the "garbage patch" is actually more like an extremely thin plastic soup containing particles that are mostly the size of confetti and which are mostly below the surface. The patch is not visible to the naked eye or to satellite images.

The idea that we can scoop this plastic out of the sea, transfer it to land and make useful products out of the resulting "ocean plastic" on any kind of industrial scale is verging on fantasy. That hasn't stopped The Ocean Cleanup raising millions of dollars to do exactly that, with little success so far.

Meanwhile the vast majority of the "ocean plastic" or "marine plastic" used in products such as trainers and clothing has never been anywhere near the ocean. Instead, most of it has been intercepted in rivers, coastal communities, on beaches and so on before it gets to the open sea.

In addition to this, the terms "Ocean Plastic" and "Marine Plastic" are both registered trademarks, belonging to Parley for the Oceans and Arch & Hook respectively.

Preventing plastic from getting into the ocean in the first place is a better strategy than trying to capture it once it has entered the vast, inhospitable and unfathomably deep oceans, all the while breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces and absorbing contaminants.

But much of the plastic destined for the oceans is not in the form of single-use water bottles or shampoo sachets but microfibres from washing machines and – the biggest source of all – tiny particles of synthetic rubber worn from car tyres as they drive around on abrasive roads (as Dutch designer Babette Porcelijn pointed out to Dezeen two years ago).

So while the focus on eliminating plastic drinking straws, water bottles and bags are admirable, it distracts from the far bigger and more complex picture.

News that the UK government is considering introducing standards to help clear up confusion over terms such as "biodegradable" and "compostable" is welcome, and its call-for-evidence document sets out some useful definitions.

But definitions are not the same as standards, and in the absence of internationally agreed norms, let alone laws, greenwashers remain free to confuse the discourse. To end plastic pollution, we first need to eliminate language pollution.
Marcus Fairs is founder and editor-in-chief of Dezeen.
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