The alarm bells started to ring with the growing number of emails from PR companies. A typical message runs along the lines of ‘Our client is phasing out some plastic packaging but it is going to take 12 months and in the meantime they are looking for an option to recycle what they are still producing’. 

I suggest investing in a collaborative long-term solution being developed for hard-to-recycle plastics, only to be met with a sigh as this clearly doesn’t meet the brief of the short-term, high profile gain required. Sure enough within a few weeks I see an announcement that the packaging can now be recycled if the public is willing to post it somewhere. If sufficient is collected, it will eventually turn into a park bench in a randomly selected adventure playground.

The initiative creates another peripheral recycling scheme which is almost certainly resource intensive, probably not financially sustainable and places even more burden on people to act. Meanwhile the longer-term systemic change is starved of the funding and support it requires. 

The surge of environmental interest has seen the return of Greenwashing but this time it is dressed in more sophisticated clothing. Companies have been quick to grasp that the public views plastic as ‘bad’ whilst anything with words like ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable’ are ‘good’.

A plethora of new products have arrived on the market with these definitions neatly avoiding the fact that although the description might technically be accurate it is almost certainly never going to happen because the appropriate recycling systems don’t exist in the UK.

The result is that companies are paying more believing that they are doing the right thing but ironically might be causing a bigger problem. If you put compostable or biodegradable packaging into traditional recycling bins they can cause contamination reducing the value of the other recycling. It also increases public confusion as it is counter-intuitive to put a compostable coffee cup into a food bin and, even if you do, the chances are that it will be removed for incineration or landfill as it won’t break-down sufficiently quickly.

Another growing trend is for companies to fall back on language which sounds good in theory but which is hard to define. A classic is fashion retailer Zara’s recent announcement that ‘All of its clothing collections will be made from sustainable materials before 2025’. 

Hubbub has undertaken some research for the All Party Parliamentary Group exploring sustainable fashion and it is very clear that nobody currently has a clue about what constitutes a ’sustainable material’. Zara’s statement sounds good but side-steps the bigger conversation about the impact of growing levels of consumption driven by fast fashion.

The danger of the return of Greenwashing is that businesses and people will feel they are doing the right thing whereas they might be exacerbating the problem and will almost certainly be avoiding the more challenging conversation around consumption levels.

What then needs to be done to stop this trend proliferating? Media needs to scrutinise press releases more thoroughly and start questioning statements which have good headlines but little substance. The Advertising Standards Agency needs to ensure that false claims are not being made. Environmental pressure groups have a role to call out bad practice and to shine the light on dubious claims through social media. Finally, all of us can play our part by looking underneath the headline and ask does this really stack up?