Do Sustainable Products Exist?
Sustainability, as a buzzword, is on an upward trend. Hence, why we’re seeing it everywhere. Say, you’re scrolling through Instagram and come across an advertisement for “sustainable” toilet paper. Or, you’re on the lookout for a new face wash and every single one has “sustainable” slapped across the label.
Enter: “LOHAS” customers. These are the folks like us trying to live Lifestyles Of Health And Sustainability – i.e., those that don’t want the sustainability yucks in the products we use and consume. The Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) released a study in 2010 explaining that this customer segment makes up roughly 25% of U.S. shoppers, and more than $290 billion in sales… and these numbers have continued to grow over the past decade.
So, brands are throwing themselves at the opportunity to secure those sweet, sweet “LOHAS” dollars… the question is, are they actually creating “sustainable” products? Heck, do sustainable products even exist?
What does “sustainable” even mean?
Let’s start with our definition of “sustainable”. It’s worth mentioning that there is a lot of disagreement over the definition of “sustainability,” which makes it even more difficult to define… and more difficult to identify. Even the Cambridge dictionary and the Merriam-Webster dictionary slightly differ in their definitions of what “sustainability” is. Here at Finch, for something to be “sustainable”, it must balance how it meets human needs with its ability to continue to do so for the foreseeable future, without degrading the natural environment. So, fully sustainable products (ones that completely fulfill that definition) don’t actually exist…yet.
We will tell you, however, that some products are more sustainable than others. This can mean that the way that they were produced or manufactured required less energy or created less waste, for example, than what is conventionally sold on the market. Or, the materials or ingredients they contain have less of a negative impact on ecosystems when they’re eventually washed down the drain or disposed of. Take note that these statements are in comparison to others – these products are more sustainable in comparison to their less sustainable counterparts – they’re not sustainable in and of themselves.
So, how do we know if a product is more sustainable?
As we just mentioned, there are certain components to a product that can make it more sustainable – and we can evaluate those components at each stage of the product’s lifecycle. This technique is called a life cycle assessment, which is an approach that assesses the environmental impacts associated with a product, from when it’s first created to when it’s finally disposed of.
Let’s talk about the possible life cycles that people assess for products.
Cradle to grave - an assessment that includes all the stages of a life cycle from when raw materials are extracted to when the product – or its components – end up in landfill, are recycled, or are composted.
Cradle to gate - an assessment of a product that evaluates only the raw material extraction, production, manufacturing, packaging, and transportation processes. This assessment excludes the distribution of the product, how the consumer uses it, and how it’s disposed of – it only assesses the activities until it leaves the factory “gate”.
Cradle to cradle - an assessment that acknowledges that at the end-of-life stage (or when the consumer is “done” with the product), the product is recycled or reused instead of being disposed of. This concept envisions that there is no such thing as “waste” since products can be reborn with a new life – i.e. they start back at the cradle. This helps offset the impact of the production of a product because it is kept in use for longer.
Overall, a life cycle assessment can measure everything from the water footprint of a product to its potential for ozone depletion and land use. This calculation is created through an assessment of five stages – transportation, extraction, manufacturing, use, and end-of-life. For a more detailed description of what happens at each of these stages, check out our Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) glossary entry.
At their core, life cycle assessments are used to compare and contrast products that serve a similar purpose. However, it really depends on what an analyst is subjectively weighing as more important. For example, is it more important that a product has less of an impact on ecosystem health, or that it uses less water? LCAs help identify where these trade-offs are and the unfortunate reality is that those tradeoffs often exist – this is a key part of what we call the sustainability paradox. Occasionally, in our attempts to buy things that are “better for the planet”, we may end up causing new, unintended damage elsewhere. So, while LCAs are incredibly helpful tools, and one of the best assessments we have so far, they’re not perfect and don’t include every pillar of what we would like to consider as part of “sustainable products”.
Will there ever be a totally sustainable product?
At the end of the day, if there are ever any truly sustainable products, it all comes back to how we’re defining sustainability. With current methods of production – including all five of those stages of a life cycle assessment – it’s effectively impossible to have a product be 100% sustainable. However, there are some very, very cool advancements being made that minimize the harmful impacts that products can create on people and the planet. And by advancements, we mean looking back to Indigenous methods and the application of their systems of thinking. Take, for example, the Kichwa Sarayaku people of Ecuador. They created the proposal for Kawsay Sacha, the Living Forest, a product that centers on forest production and rejects fossil fuel use. This project is based on the traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples to live with the natural environment, rather than extract from it.
These ways of thinking – rooted in traditional Indigenous knowledge – are inherently not scalable in today’s industrialized society. And, the systems we have in place currently are incompatible with this kind of people-to-planet harmony. Let’s take, for example, regenerative agriculture, the self-nourishing agricultural practice, which actually reverses the impact extractive agricultural processes (hint: pesticides) can have on the planet. For example, the Three Sisters, a combination of corn, beans, and squash, were cultivated by the Iroquois, an Indigenous confederacy. Growing these three crops simultaneously is a win-win-win situation: the corn stalk creates scaffolding for the beans to grow on, the beans return nitrogen to the soil, and the squash grows vines that prevent weeds from growing.
As currently conceived, regenerative practices are significantly less efficient than their industrial counterparts. The present scale and state of regenerative practices simply cannot keep up with our demand for products and high levels of consumption on a global scale. And less than 5% of United States crops are fully regenerative. However, when there’s a will, there’s a way. If we apply the innovations and technological advances of the conventional industry to regenerative practices, we believe we’ll see the magic start to happen. But, this will take time.
In the meantime, the good news is that at Finch, we’ve assessed what matters – across different product categories – to help guide you in making informed, more sustainable decisions. We rate products based on six footprints, including climate, water, human well-being, ecological, waste, and raw materials. And, because it matters how long a product is kept in use, we also consider real reviews. This helps us assess the functionality, quality, and practicality of products -- because how well a product works also has an impact on its environmental footprint.