Rating sustainability

Because it can be hard to tell whether a company does what it says on the (recyclable) tin. In partnership with Curation, here's your guide to debunking bogus company claims.

Brought to you in partnership with Curation.

As consumers increasingly demand evidence of sustainability, brands aren’t standing idly by. Whether it’s offering greener packaging alternatives, upcycling materials into new goods or giving customers the ability to repurpose their unwanted possessions, being “green” is a popular choice among companies looking to boost their sustainability credentials. 

Producing sustainable products, however, is challenging. Below, we’ve listed a few areas where it might be worth doing your own research if being green is your priority. 

Alternative fuels – When Covid-19 restrictions are lifted and flying abroad is on your agenda again, you may well be offered the option of paying extra to have biofuel used to partially power your flight. 

host of airlines have announced intentions to make their operations more sustainable, with the implementation of alternative fuels seemingly playing a key role in these plans. Boeing says it will be able to fly a commercial aircraft on 100% biofuel by 2030, while Airbus has already seen a flight using 100% sustainable aviation fuel take off. 

Researchers, however, have previously indicated that biofuels may not be a viable alternative to conventional fuels because they require water, land and energy to produce – enhancing their carbon footprint. Their production may also have social implications, with land that could be used to cultivate food for local populations instead being utilised to produce fuel for multinational corporations. 

This doesn’t mean all biofuels are as harmful as fossil fuels. Renewable biodiesel, for example, tends to be made from old cooking oil, discharged animal fats and even used coffee grinds. Some large energy companies have also established facilities to scale up the production of this fuel using waste products as inputs. 

Plant-based milk – Before we go any further, let’s start with a simple fact: plant-based milk is better in almost all cases in terms of its environmental footprint than animal-based dairy products. A litre of milk from cows produces about three kilograms of CO2 (or equivalent carbon emissions) compared to one kilogram (or less) for alternatives like almond, soy and oat milk. Dairy products also use substantially more water and land than their non-dairy counterparts. 

Not all plant-based milk is created equal, however. If the environment is on your mind, choosing wisely – and reading labels – is the order of the day. 

An Oxford University study, for example, found that rice milk and almond milk – both popular alternatives to dairy – use substantial amounts of water in their production. Rice paddies also give off methane – a potent greenhouse gas – while almond milk increases the workload of bees. Overproduction can lead to bees dying due to the strain. 

Other nut-based milks are associated with poor labour standards. Manual processing of cashews, for example, has been linked to health risks, with workers often having to don protective gloves to avoid coming into contact with caustic chemicals contained in the nuts. 

So, what to opt for in your next latte? Oat milk has been heralded as a champion among alternative milks. Leading brands also claim they don’t use potentially harmful pesticides in their products – a potential concern when utilising such a widely-grown crop. Likewise, soy milk – potentially a source of concern given the crop’s link to deforestation – actually uses less water than any of the alternatives mentioned above, according to some studies. Just make sure to pick a brand using soy without links to logging in the world’s rainforests. 

Offsetting – You know the deal – you purchase an expensive gadget and you’re given the option of cancelling out the emissions used to make it. Click a button, pay a little extra – bingo, you’ve got some carbon credits and your environmental impact is nullified. Except, it doesn’t really work like that. 

Depending on where your money’s going, you could be supporting a poor-quality scheme that won’t actually take any additional CO2 out of the atmosphere. You could be paying to plant trees, for example, that have already been sold to someone else – they would have been placed there even without your involvement. Or, the forest you just helped preserve could disappear in a fire with all the CO2 making its way back into the atmosphere.

This is not to say all carbon removal schemes are bad. Some are definitely better than others. It’s worth looking into the details, however, to see where your money’s going and, if you can, picking a project that is verified by a reputable third-party organisation.

Far better than offsetting is to avoid polluting activities in the first place – or supporting the organisations that are making a real effort to do so.