On Tuesday, July 19, Humanscale CSO Jane Abernethy joined design writer Roddy Clarke of Forbes and The Financial Times to discuss navigating through a world of greenwashing, the power of transparent communication, and actionable steps toward understanding a company's true impact. It was a lively conversation that delved into the important topic of greenwashing, how to spot misleading sustainability claims, and why it’s so critical to separate fact from fiction.

Thank you to all who were able to join us live and asked such great questions! As a reminder, you can always click here to watch the full recording of the webinar. Below you’ll find answers to some of the questions Jane and Roddy were unable to get to during the Q&A portion: 

Being transparent will also help building trust with the consumer. How might we build relationships around sustainability with our consumers? Maybe not each brand individually but as a coalition of brands for change?

Roddy: Offering transparency is key in the fight for a greener future and it does also instill confidence into the consumers. Bring your audience and consumer market onto the journey with you. Admit you aren’t perfect, because realistically every brand can improve and grow, but commit to change, adaptation, and most of all, listen to what your consumers might challenge you with. Opening your doors will not only engage consumers, it can also have a positive impact in encouraging other brands and individuals to follow suit.

Isn't the word "recyclability" a deceptive word as is --- i don't know if it holds any meaning if it is not actually recycled. 

Jane: It’s true that the word “recyclable” can be misleading since people might think this is a stronger sustainability claim than the benefit in practice. Although it only refers to what is possible to do with the material, not what is likely to happen with it.

Many countries (including the US FTC) have clear guidelines around how the word should be used – facilities to recycle the material should exist where the product is sold. The statement could, in theory, need change depending on which city the product is sold in, and what recycling facilities are available locally. It is a hard statement to stand behind.

Do you have any recommendations that individuals can do in their own lives/workplaces to help reduce their carbon footprint? i.e. Remove individual garbage with bags to central garbage/recycle stations. 

Roddy: There are many small actions that will contribute to a greener lifestyle and lower carbon footprint. Here are three simple suggestions to get started:

  • Cycle/walk or use public transport where possible. If you need a car occasionally opt for car sharing services such as ZipCar or Enterprise CarClub.
  • Use local refill stations for dry goods, toiletries, and cleaning products. Not only does this avoid single use plastic and reduces logistical impacts, reusable glass containers can look much nicer when styled and displayed on a shelf or in a cupboard.
  • Buy food and groceries from local, independent markets. Not only will they be without packaging, a lot will be sourced from neighboring farms and will only stock seasonal varieties.

How might we shift beliefs and motivations beyond "recycling" being the only way and move into other solutions like repair, reuse, etc.?

Roddy: We need to view products with their next life in mind. When our time with the product is over, can it be recycled, reused, repurposed, or restored? All of these must be considered when designing a product and also when buying a product. Take back schemes, restoration offerings and other circular systems need to become the norm to ensure we can move away from the linear models which have plagued us for far too long. As brands, designers, and consumers, we must shift our mindsets to view these as customary and the first option in any case. Invest in pieces and brands where such mindsets are the norm and where you can consume responsibly as part of a circular economy.

Are carbon offsets a form of greenwashing? 

Jane: Unfortunately the answer isn’t a clear yes or no. They vary greatly in the amount of benefit they bring.

The intention of carbon credits is to incentivize the change needed to transition to a low-carbon economy. Usually this means that funding for projects that prevent emissions (like installation of renewable energy systems) or directly remove emissions (like reforestation) is made possible because of the sale of the carbon credit. The sale of the credit ensures funding is available and the project has been implemented, a change that wouldn’t  have happened otherwise.

However, the market for carbon credits is not consistently regulated. Sometimes companies with the worst impacts use poor quality carbon credits a free pass to continue with business as usual on the one end. One example is a fossil fuel company that claims their natural gas is “carbon neutral”, when they’ve not made any improvements or caused any carbon to be removed/prevented from entering the atmosphere. Instead they’ve purchased credits for a wind project that was installed a decade ago and was going to continue operating anyway.

To help improve clarity on the quality of different carbon credits, EDF, WWF and Oeko-Institut have published a paper on the criteria for evaluating carbon credit, and have developed a quality scoring system.

How far up and down the chain (from raw materials to waste disposal) should consumers hold companies responsible for sustainability?

Roddy: Always ask questions and never be afraid to challenge brands about anything that concerns you at any part of the production chain. If truly committed to sustainability, the brand will respond honestly and openly, and while it may be an area of concern, they will share how it is part of their future plan of improvement. Every part of the chain has an impact so brands should be conscious as to the footprint of each area.  

Where is Humanscale on being design focused on repair, reuse, recapture and remanufacturing? 

Jane: Humanscale has had sustainability embedded into our design process for a long time, ensuring our products use less material initially, are durable (both function well and look good for years), and repairable/upgradeable to keep them in use as long as possible. Because of their repairability/upgradeability, they’re often refurbished within the local market for continued use.  

Brands have used words such as this to hide behind and offer a vague message in the hope that consumers will buy into it. However, it is important to look out for the facts, data and claims made when this word or others such as ‘compostable’ is made. How is the product recycled? Does the brand offer advice on this? Is there a system in place for buyers in different locations where different recycling schemes are in place? Never be afraid to ask brands more about the product if you are concerned. For brands using the word, make sure the messaging around it is very clear. What about other products besides chairs? Stand up workstations? Do you take these back?

Jane: Currently we help our customers manage materials disposal through our BEAM program, which aims to handle all materials in the space – including our own chairs, workstations and other products. But it’s not limited to our own products.

So many companies claim that their product and/or service is "the most sustainable" but only few of them can make this claim authentically. How, when the market is saturated with this message, do the sincere companies cut through the "noise" and get themselves heard? 

Roddy: If you are going to use this term, you must use data to back this up. As Humanscale has done, each product is third-party verified and that is important when making claims such as this. I think it is more powerful to lead with the beauty, aesthetic or functionality of a piece and rest in confidence knowing that the product has been made responsibly and the data/impact is outlined in the subtext for people to see. Sustainability should be inherent in everything we make and should be embedded into every campaign, but not as a commercial opportunity and more as business principle.

What about the new regulations in Europe? There is a new specific sustainability norm. Is Humanscale also aware of the European regulations?

Jane: Yes, we’re excited to see the proposal to protect consumers from greenwashing.