Greenwashing: Equestrian Edition

If you’re early on in your eco-conscious journey, you may not have run into this word, but you’ve definitely encountered greenwashing. Marketing teams across the nation have latched onto eco-conscious buzz words and assign them to products that have no business being labeled such. Some of these mystery words include “eco-friendly”, “vegan friendly”, “sustainably produced” or even just “good for the environment”.

We see a similar phenomenon at our grocery stores where products are labeled as organic, but the FDA doesn’t have a set definition for “organic”. Not to say our favorite apples aren’t grown well and without pesticides, but there’s no standard to hold these products accountable. In the same way, greenwashing capitalizes on a customer’s positive intentions and lack of knowledge.

greenwashing | the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound. Greenwashing is considered an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly.

Will Kenton for Investopedia, Greenwashing, Jan. 23, 2021

Examples of greenwashing include:

  • Recycling programs that offer discounts (Looking at you, H&M)
  • Labeling hardy materials like plastic as compostable and biodegradable, without listing the time it takes for these processes.
  • Marketing plastics as recyclable, even though many kinds of plastics cannot be reused or processed in local plants, effectively leaving the consumer to throw them away
  • Virtue signaling one program or effort that doesn’t apply to the rest of the company’s practices or manufacturing Ex. Having one product line made with only plant fibers, but still contributing to the fast fashion cycle and large manufacturing runs
  • Messaging that leads consumer to believe an “all-natural” or “eco-friendly” formula is safer or less harmful without presented evidence
  • Sustainability claims that are not supported with quantitative evidence or reports
  • Marketing synthetic materials as eco-friendly or vegan in substitution of animal products, most often leather

There are many examples of greenwashing in the world, but how does this affect us in our small, equestrian world? Below, I’ve found some products that serve as examples of greenwashing.

Vegan Leather

Leather is a discussion with much debate, often intersecting the conversations of environmentalists and animal advocates. For the moment, I’m only honing in on plastic-derived materials being substituted and pushed as eco-friendly alternatives to leather. At the end of the day, oil and plastic production need to decrease. We are manufacturing too much and creating tons of waste that will not degrade for centuries. Some offenders include:

Riding Sport™ Eco Leather Half Chaps
Horze Ladies’ Victoria Vegan Leather Breech
Henri de Rivel Vegan-X Saddles

Oftentimes, these vegan leathers are made from polyurethane or PVC which are synthetic polymers of plastic. Unlike cowhide, they are not as durable, prone to unsightly discoloration and will take much longer to decompose. In landfill conditions, plastic polymers would take hundreds of years to degrade. Leather will typically take about 50 years, but this can lengthen depending on the chemicals used in tanning.

Recycled Plastic is Still Plastic

This one hurts me a bit, because I love SmartPak as a retailer. As far as product innovation, customer service and having a pulse on what equestrians want, I think SmartPak is at the top. However, an eco-conscious lifestyle is one that is constantly improving and learning. For today’s subject of greenwashing, I feel I have to call out what I see in SmartPak’s “Earth Friendly Material” blanket line.

SmartPak Deluxe Combo Neck Fly Sheet w/ Earth Friendly Material

This is a product that I’m not necessarily unhappy with, but the language around it needs improvement for it to not be greenwashing. SmartPak reports it has “earth friendly features…[and is] made from a breathable, sustainable mesh.” They claim “every sheet saves approximately 405 plastic bottles from going into a landfill.”

Unfortunately, plastic is still plastic. It will never be considered beneficial for the environment, so this is a classic example of “Earth Friendly” and “sustainable” not meaning anything significant. Even worse, this language is perhaps reassuring a customer that their purchase is a greater contribution than it is. Such is the problem with greenwashing.

How I think this would be improved would be to simply call the blankets what they are: made from recycled plastic. A big reason why I’m so disappointed is that SmartPak is making efforts to change how they manufacture and source materials that are more environmentally responsible, but they’re not being authentic in their language. Let’s call a spade a spade, especially when there is something notable! Imagine if it became the norm for all sheets and blankets to be even partially constructed with recycled materials; how exciting!

No Information, Just Claims

The Horseware Eco Blanket Wash is another occasion where something could really be going right, but the company does themselves and their customers a disservice by not providing more information.

There are some aggressive claims for this blanket wash, including:

  • “an innovative environmental solution”
  • “developed with sustainability in mind”
  • “a 100% eco-friendly formula”
  • “REACH compliant”
  • “free of harmful pesticides, petrochemicals, and dyes”
  • Container is made from a “unique rPET compound which is completely comprised of 100% recycled and recyclable materials, including the biodegradable label”

What kills me is that this could be a fantastic formula with a lot of science and thought behind it. However, the company does not elaborate on any of the ingredients in this wash, but boldly asserts it will not have one negative impact on the environment or your horse. Another common sign of greenwashing is throwing out accreditations or jargon that need to be looked up because they are either profoundly academic or the company does not give context. There are two examples of this in the description.

REACH Compliance – This is an EU set of minimum standards for removing proven harmful chemicals from products and is required for any company operating in the EU. Here’s a list of substances restricted by REACH. Without context provided by the company, foreign customers may assume that this compliance means they’ve gone above and beyond certain environmental policies. I know that’s what I was hoping for when I looked it up. In fact, it’s more of a standard safety certification, like how the FDA approves products in the US.

rPET Compound – Like I mentioned above with vegan leather, rPET is another type of plastic. Albeit, it does have a few legs up on our traditional water bottles. It takes less energy to create and is almost entirely recyclable for a time, but it will eventually only be able to create lower grade plastics. Let’s also remember, most plastic is not recycled. The biggest red flag is that most of our information about rPET comes from plastic manufacturers, so we cannot trust them fully given their bias.

Protect Your Wallet and Your Earth

Greenwashing is a topic I’ve wanted to talk about for awhile. I’m sure this won’t be my last post about it! It’s everywhere and it riles me up, because it takes advantage of people who want to be better without giving them what they pay for. It is yet another reason why we are the only advocates for our finances and principles.

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