Sustainability. Every other company is now talking about that term.
But it’s not only a buzzword—it’s a movement. When you purchase a sustainable item, not only are you receiving a tangible product, but you’re also buying into a lifestyle and the feel-good sentiments that go hand-in-hand with helping out the planet.
But what exactly is “sustainability”?
Although “sustainable products” are most commonly associated with eco-friendly products such as reusable straws or biodegradable packaging, it’s important to note that there are actually three different pillars of sustainability: social, economic and environmental. Often, brands advertise socially- and environmentally-friendly products.
Broadly speaking, the United Nations describes sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Throughout its lifespan, the ideal eco-friendly product doesn’t negatively impact the environment—be it during production, usage or disposal. If they do, they try to make up for it in other ways, such as offsetting their carbon footprint by funding a carbon dioxide-saving somewhere else.
The rise of sustainability has also seen the rise of brands that base their business off upcycling, such as Patagonia’s Worn Wear brand, where new iterations of clothes are made from existing pieces, thus skipping the production process.
Homegrown brands may also choose to manufacture locally to reduce the pollutants emitted while transporting between the factory and warehouse, and to ensure that workers are being treated fairly.
Beyond basic human and labour rights, the United Nations draws special attention to gender equality, children, indigenous peoples, people with disabilities and people in poverty. Is the company an advocate of equal pay; do they stand against factories that employ children, and are they inclusive in their hiring process—these are some of the questions one would ask when determining if a company is socially sustainable.
In a perfect world, products would be sustainable in a holistic sense, meaning they check off all the boxes of the three different pillars. Unfortunately, they are not always mutually inclusive—eco-friendly products are not necessarily produced in ethical work environments, and ethically produced products are not necessarily made in eco-friendly factories.
Why are sustainable products so expensive?
Let’s get this out of the way: yes, many brands are riding on the sustainability train and capitalising on the green lifestyle trend by charging inflated prices for simple products that can be bought for a lower price. Consider these stainless steel straws by WOWE that sell for $11.72 on iHerb for a pack of eight, while Cotton On charges $17.99 for a pack of four. In some ways, we are experiencing the start of a revolution.
Miao Wong, who works at abillionveg, an app that allows users to find plant-based and environmentally friendly options anywhere, believes that change is inevitable for companies and consumers. “The climate is changing, our values [as consumers] are changing, so the structures of social and economy are being forced to change as well.” When this happens, companies will need to reevaluate and restructure. “There are two different types of opportunists” says Miao, “[Some will] capitalise on the trend, while others will take the chance to be a warrior for the movement” by educating consumers and offering more sustainable options.
Beyond the trend of greenwashing, there are tangible reasons why certain sustainable products come at such a high cost to the consumer. For the most part, it has to do with scalability, cost and supply & demand.
Firstly, sustainable goods are still lacking a high demand comparative to conventionally manufactured ones, “The culture of sustainability is not yet deeply rooted in Singaporean culture,” says Eshton Chua, an entrepreneur who works in design and production. “It is a very recent shift in terms of how Singaporeans perceive the importance of the environment and its changing climate and [the shifting mentality] is still very much a work in progress.” For small companies that aren’t able to operate with economies of scale, this means that the high cost of manufacturing will have to be incorporated into the price tag. Stephanie Dickson, Founder of Green is the New Black, says “the more that we support these brands and vote with our dollar, the more scale they can have, and therefore the cheaper it will be to produce.”
OK, you tell me the manufacturing costs are high… but why?
To get to the root of the high price tag on sustainable items, we have to break down the high cost. “People don’t consider the different externalities when they purchase something,” says Kathy Gabriel, Co-Founder of Seva Seed, a non-profit that makes reusable cloth pads. And if the consumer doesn’t bear the cost, someone else will—be it workers or Mother Nature.
These externalities can include everything from the cost of water used in production to the social aspect, such as fair working conditions and wages.
The fast-fashion industry is notorious for on-trend, inexpensive clothes that are worn a handful of times before they either tear or are disposed of without much consideration because of their low price. “When you have a T-shirt [available] for a few dollars, someone along the supply chain has paid the price for it, and it isn’t pretty,” says Stephanie.
She adds, “When you look at an ethically-produced or sustainably-produced product, the brand has taken the time to understand their supply chain and the provenance to ensure that everyone along the supply chain is looked after and that the environmental impact of the item is managed correctly.” Essentially, when you pay a higher price for a sustainable product, you’re paying for the protection of the environment and workers.
Stephanie also notes that, “if the true cost is factored into products then the price would increase and the sustainable option [would] quite possibly be the cheaper, fairer and more environmentally friendly option.”
In the case of organic food, the high price tag can be attributed to both the health and wellness trend and a more labor-intensive production process. Not too long ago, the term “organic” wasn’t a novelty—it was the norm. Stephanie says, “Organic has a premium because it is not the ‘normal’ way to grow food. Instead, pesticides and other nasty ways of mass production are adopted which not only leads to medical issues (that we still haven’t seen the full extent of the damage) but also [ruins] land and biodiversity.”
According to the US-based Organic Farming Research Foundation, organic agriculture requires “substituting labor and intensive management for chemicals” along with the cleanup of polluted water in lieu of using pesticides and other harsh toxins.
LBR, financially, is it worth going sustainable?
“Expensive” is a subjective word, and it also depends on the item in consideration. When sustainable items are put in context to the product lifespan, reusable ones either don’t cost a lot more, or will even save you money in the future.
Menstrual products are a great example of this as the good quality ones don’t actually cost a lot more.
Using hannahpad as an example, Kathy illustrates how after using it for four months, one would have already broken even: “[A reusable pad] that can be used for more than five years costs between $25 and $35. So let’s say you need 10 pads for one cycle for an average woman. You’re paying $400 at one go which seems expensive… but if you calculate one good quality [pack of pads] in Singapore, which costs around $10, and let’s assume [you only use one pack] for the entire cycle, that’s $100 for the year [depending on the regularity of your cycle].”
Take this number long term, you’ll actually be paying a lot more for disposables over time. On a personal note, I’ve been using menstrual cups since 2011. Over the past nine years, I’ve only gone through two at $35 each. Overtime, this has saved me from buying around 108 boxes of tampons at $20 each, which otherwise would have cost me $2,160.
Brands that sell single-use or disposable products count on repeat purchases, whereas companies on a mission to promote reusability and reducing, sell their reusable products with the hope that you won’t need to repurchase on a regular basis. To be economically viable, there needs to be a slight markup in the pricing.
When asked why she is willing to pay for the markup in sustainable goods, Miao said, “As a consumer, buying [a sustainable item] means it costs a bit more, but it adds so much value to me that I gain something [beyond just the product] because I’m intentionally making an impact and that makes me feel good.”
What can you do to start a sustainable lifestyle?
Many eateries now provide discounts if you bring your own container as part of their green initiative, Starbucks gives customers 50 cents off whenever they bring their own tumbler. In addition to bringing her own cutlery and boxes for takeaway, Miao favours using the fan instead of AC, which helps her save on electricity.
“[Aside from] being vegan, my family and I have a few edible plants in my garden, we compost and purchase second-hand clothes [when possible]” says Anupriya Iyer, from abillionveg. In many instances, you don’t need to purchase new items to practice sustainability, as it stands, purchasing less is a key component of reducing. Sustainable items may be expensive, but practicing sustainability doesn’t have to be.
Images: Unsplash, Pexels
Text: Claire Soong