Imagine shopping online for a pair of sneakers—you’ve narrowed it down to two: One doesn’t mention anything about sustainability, while the other has a green leaf on its website, promising a lower carbon footprint. 

A lot of people would spring for the environmentally-friendly choice. A recent report from BBC Global News found that 68% of DTC consumers are happy to pay more for products made through eco-friendly practices. Roughly 57% would be less loyal to the brand if they learned it was bad for the planet. 

Sounds like good news for the earth, but there’s just one problem: it’s not easy for consumers to tell what’s sustainable and what’s mere greenwashing. With many industries loosely regulated, it can be almost impossible to really know. 

For example, Marina Cighir, owner of Aina Kari candles in Venice, Italy, claims  some candle companies can brand themselves as sustainable, even if they use just 30% of beeswax in their candles. But what about that plastic packaging and the chemicals used for the other 70% of the candle? It’s often a mix of not-so-sustainable stuff, vaguely labeled. 

“It could be used only with a part palm oil, and the rest paraffin wax, and you could declare that the candle is ‘vegetable wax,’” she explains. It’s a growing trend for DTC candle companies to use only 30% vegetable oil in their candles and brand the product as “sustainable.” To stand out from the imposters, Cighir had her candle company certified with the Butterfly Mark, denoting luxury brands making a positive impact on the environment.

But brands can work with certification bodies and still fall short of sustainability promises. . That issue surfaced in 2020 when IKEA was accused of greenwashing its “sustainable wood.” Environmental groups claimed that the Swedish company’s children’s furniture had links to illegal logging in protected Siberian forests in Russia and Ukraine — even though the furniture retailed said it worked directly with the wood certification body the Forest Stewardship Council.

“I think the word sustainability is buzzy, it’s up for debate because there’s a lot of greenwashing in the market, in my opinion,” said Philip Raub, the CEO of Model Co. furniture brand, which makes made-to-order pieces domestically.

“People like that because it makes them feel better, but we try to help people understand: You can say there’s something reducing the carbon footprint of the materials, but what about the fact it was put on a boat 3,000 miles away to get here?” he said.

IKEA is hardly alone among major brands in making missteps. Fashion brands have also faced accusations of greenwashing, like Swedish clothing brand H&M, which came under fire for its “Conscious” clothing line using “organic” cotton and “recycled polyester.” The Norwegian Consumer Authority was one to point out  the brand’s shortcomings, as the fast fashion retailer didn't specify the percentage of recycled material for each garment.

An H&M competitor, the Chinese DTC powerhouse Shein claims to create no more than 100 pieces per new product, so no raw materials are wasted. But the brand has been called out for a lack of transparency in its production chain, and possible use of child labor (some pieces are made in Bangladesh, where 14 year olds are allowed to work).

Given the rampant confusion, some companies and organizations are stepping up to provide firmer guidance to consumers.

“We want to show customers that many businesses are taking strides to be sustainable,” Dane Baker, the co-founder and CEO of EcoCart, which helps brands create carbon neutral orders for their customers. 

EcoCart allows customers to select an option in the checkout process to “make my order carbon neutral,” which adds a fee to make it possible (for a pair of $200 Athletic Pulsion Labs sneakers, it's roughly $1.04). EcoCart’s technology calculates and estimates the carbon footprint of a purchase and uses the fees to fund carbon offset projects, like planting trees and building wind farms.

“The unfortunate reality of our space is that there’s not a lot of transparency or accountability when it comes down to claims that are made,” said Baker.

“Some go about it in the wrong way by using the wrong terminology, or by calculating their carbon footprint the wrong way,” he said. “There’s a lot of nuances here, and that’s why experts come into play.”

Another group pushing for change and helping brands get there is a non-profit called Products of Change, which helps DTC brands set standards when creating sustainable products.

Sustainability advocates also want the United States Environmental Protection Agency to step in and define standards, as well as crack down on brands to make sure they’re not lying to customers.

Most businesses don’t truly understand how eco-friendly they are, as the current assessments for the sustainability of products are complex and time-consuming,” said Austin Simms, co-founder of Dayrize, a sustainable shopping website.

According to Simms, the process can take up to six months and cost up to $30,000 per product, though he says his site uses technology that can assess the products it features for just $60 per product.

Ultimately, even if the pace of change is slow, brands do want to improve. Some that may have fallen short in the past are now working to do better in the future.

“Shein is committed to operating a socially and environmentally responsible supply chain,” a representative for the brand told us. “Our Supplier Code of Conduct requires that the manufacturers comply with local environmental regulations and international labor standards, and we regularly audit facilities throughout our supply chain to ensure compliance with our code.”

The company recently hired a new Global Head of ESG in Los Angeles named Adam Whinston, who is focused on expanding the company’s sustainability commitments.

“We are exploring new opportunities for green innovations and business practices,” the company rep said. “Please look out for additional sustainability developments in the coming months.”

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