Ethique’s founder Brianne West on how to identify greenwashing

Brianne West Ethique interview

Brianne West, founder of Ethique. Image supplied.

While there’s lots of great initiatives for Plastic Free July and we’ve seen many brands promoting the way that they are tackling plastic waste it can be hard to know what claims are valid and when we’re falling victim to greenwashing. That’s when something seems more environmentally friendly than it actually is or it might not even be good for the planet at all.

We’re not experts in this subject but Ethique founder and CEO, Brianne West, walks the talk when it comes to her plastic free beauty and lifestyle brand. She created the business herself back in 2012 in her kitchen at home as a university student. These days, Ethique is a global success, with its products sold in 25 markets across the world. Ethique has also saved over 20 million single use plastics from ending up in landfill, is a climate-positive B Corp certified company and creates 100% plastic free hair, skin and home products made from sustainable and ethically sourced ingredients.

We caught up with Brianne to find out what greenwashing really means, how we can identify it and what we can be doing to consume beauty products more responsibly?

What is greenwashing and how do we identify it as consumers?

Greenwashing is when a company tries to appear more environmentally friendly than it actually is by using false or inflated claims relating to the eco-credentials of a product or business. It is rife in the beauty and fashion industry (and most others). For consumers, this means that while their intentions to be more environmentally conscious may be good, we are often misled and our choices aren’t having the positive impact we are led to believe they are. It’s very hard to spot, if you don’t know what you are looking for, so the best thing to do is ask your favourite brands questions, ask for certifications, or proof, and thoroughly understand what they are saying on things that you care about.

Another way to approach it is to become an expert yourself, but of course that is hard! So pick one thing to start with that you are really passionate about; whether it’s carbon emissions or fair supply chains. Then you can sort the wheat from the chaff yourself.

Keep an eye out for claims or phrases. Some examples include:

– Be sceptical of buzzwords like ‘low-impact’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘biodegradable’ (the vast majority of items are biodegradable if you wait long enough – the Titanic is currently biodegrading for example. It’s the time it takes to biodegrade that is the important bit.

– Find out what those visually appealing stamps and terms on the labels actually mean. Some brands make their own stamps – they may have a reason for doing so, such as aesthetics and have it backed up with a proper certification – but make sure you check. A certification owned by a brand should always be taken with a pinch of salt.

– Read articles about brands with a healthy dose of cynicism. Check their references and try to stick to sources that are recognised as reputable.

– Vegan does not mean cruelty-free. Vegan means that you don’t use or consume products made from animals or animal by-products. Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily mean that animals weren’t hurt or tested on in the making of the product, so make sure you are doing your due diligence in checking testing processes too. This one tends to catch a few people out.

– Follow bloggers, YouTubers, Tiktokers and Instagrammers that inspire you but don’t make you feel like a failure. Look at what they are promoting and check if it aligns with their values, or does it just makes them money. There are some wonderful authentic creators out there now helping people make better choices.

– Lastly, support the companies who align with your own beliefs. It’s not only easier to shop that way, it’s also a fantastic way to show the power of your choice in the consumer market and encourage other businesses to do better.

Ultimately, for the most positive impact, choose brands which can demonstrate a genuine commitment to people and planet through commitments to carbon reduction, direct and fair trade, considerate supply chains, paying a living wage and supporting charities working to tackle environmental challenges.

Brianne West Ethique interview

Ethique’s hair, skin and home products are 100% plastic free.

What is the impact that greenwashing has on our planet and why does it matter?

Put simply, the impact of greenwashing is that consumers continue to spend more money with businesses who use unsustainable and unethical practices which damage the planet, fuel unethical working practices and diminish human quality of life. All in the name of profit. And this puts companies who don’t greenwash, but who might be doing really good things at a real disadvantage. Quieter, more humble companies are often far more environmentally minded.

One of the most prevalent forms of greenwashing in the beauty industry right now is ‘recycle-washing’. Companies selling their shampoo or face cream in a plastic tube, tub or bottle slap a big green sticker on stating it’s 100% recyclable to suggest it’s environmentally robust. But the reality is that 91% of plastic goes unrecycled even when the consumer rinses and recycles it properly, just purely because the waste infrastructure isn’t there to dispose of plastic correctly.

Horrifyingly, many wealthy nations send their ‘recycling’ to landfill in low and middle income countries, which don’t have the infrastructure to deal with it either. The result is pollution, environmental destruction and preventable illness, leading to an estimated million deaths every year. So ‘recyclable packaging’ is not a silver bullet.

Another, similar form of greenwashing that is rife right now is ‘circularity washing’. Companies that offer glass or aluminium packaging may suggest that their bottle is zerowaste because it’s made from ‘infinitely recyclable’ materials, but then have no infrastructure for return and reuse of their packaging – they just tell customers to recycle it. Or they offer return programs, without a proper life cycle analysis (LCA). This is only ‘green’ on the surface – recycling glass and aluminium is incredibly resource intensive, so for aluminium and glass to be ‘good’ options they need to be reused numerous times before recycling. It’s not a zero-waste solution. Done well, these will be an excellent way to tackle packaging issues, but they tend to be opaque behind the scenes.

What do you think we should all be doing as individuals to consume beauty products more responsibly?

A lot of responsibility is placed on consumers, particularly women, which is unfair. The onus really should be on businesses to make a change since they’re responsible for the vast majority of the waste.

The unfortunate reality is that most businesses are set up to pursue profit above all else – so they won’t make changes unless it’s compelling for their bottom line.

That means the most effective things you can do are the ones businesses can see and feel. Find businesses that genuinely care for the planet and its people, with certifications and policies to back it up, and vote with your dollar.

Hold big brands accountable and ask questions. If a brand posts on social claiming their product is ‘eco-friendly’ without any other detail, send them a DM or drop a comment to ask them how. If they tout ‘100% recyclable plastic’ as green, ask them what measures they’re taking to tackle the 91% of plastic that goes to landfill regardless of consumer efforts to recycle.

Tell brands – nicely – that you want them to do better and hold them to account. A friendly email or social media message to explain what’s missing and what you’d like them to change can make a world of difference.

But ultimately, don’t buy something, unless you need it.

In what way can the beauty industry be used as a tool for good? Can feminism and beauty co-exist?

The beauty industry can absolutely be a force for good, if companies decide to make it so. But it does require an acceptance that doing things properly will cost companies more and they made need to adjust their profit margins as a result. For example, our directly traded coconut oil in our shampoo bars costs us about sixteen times the equivalent ‘mass-market’ product – but it means we can be sure of a transparent, clean supply chain, that producers receive a genuinely fair wage, and that they have our support to grow and scale sustainably. That, to us, is worth every penny.

Absolutely the beauty industry and feminism can co-exist. Feminism is equality – the freedom to choose. Good environmentalism should be intersectional – so any brand that is truly green needs to champion racial justice, feminism, reproductive rights and other key issues that prevent people with certain identities from accessing democracy and economic empowerment.

Brianne West Ethique interview

Ethique has come a long way from it’s beginnings in Brianne’s kitchen a decade ago.

How would you describe the Ethique customer and what do you think they’re looking for when they shop with your brand?

Our formulations have to meet our strict standards for for effectiveness, as well as utilising sustainably sourced, palm oil free and regeneratively farmed ingredients, alongside of course being plastic free, cruelty free, and vegan.

Our customers breakdown into two broad groups; people who really care about their impact on the world around them, and they come to us looking for a beauty product that works as well for their hair and skin as it does for the planet. But crucially, we also appeal to those who first and foremost care about hair and skin care results (the vast majority of people), but have an interest in protecting the environment. This is why we are so particular about ensuring our bars are as good as, if not better than, the leading liquid alternative. Often they’ve had a disappointing experience with another beauty bar that didn’t deliver good results for them (the industry has moved on a bit from the days when ‘beauty bars’ were mostly just soap in disguise, but formulation quality can still be very variable) and want something that will really work this time round.

What are your goals for Ethique and where do you see it’s future?

Ethique exists because business is the way to solve the growing social and environmental problems facing us. We do this by educating and empowering consumers to demand more from their brands. And most crucially, we do this by showing other brands that it is possible to use regenerative, ethical principles, yet still grow fast and be financially sustainable.
Already, you can see the difference companies like Ethique are making, by the shift the beauty industry is currently undergoing, and the huge spike in launches of solid bar products. We need inter-company collaboration to tackle these issues.

So much has changed in the ten years we’ve been around. Back in 2012, you would have had a very hard time finding a shampoo bar, and now there are multiple options on most shop shelves. We’re very proud of that and feel like we’ve shown that doing good can be good for business – both for our own business and for the forward-thinking retailers who stock us. We see our future as helping lead the industry to make genuine change – watch this space!

Speaking more specifically, our big goal is to displace half a billion plastic containers by 2030, saving them from manufacture and subsequent landfill. When we first started, our original goal was one million which seemed impossible at the time but which we exceeded nearly five years ago. So far we’ve helped our customers save well over 20 million plastic containers and we expect to reach 50 million in next two or so years (by the end of 2025, for sure).

And to continue to do all this, whilst ensuring all stakeholders benefit.

Images supplied.