When Wellington woman Sarah Fairbrother went looking for sustainable stationery for her two teenagers at the start of the school year, she had no idea the minefield she was entering into.
“Our teenagers were choosing stationery for the year, and they were keen to make good choices around sustainable options,” she said.
An online search threw up some recycled options, and Fairbrother compared these with the Warwick exercise books she bought from Whitcoulls last year, and was surprised to find they were described on the retailer’s website as “manufactured from 100% recycled fibre and waste wood from sustainably managed sources”.
However her 16-year daughter had been studying product certification regimes at Wellington High School and urged her mother to check the veracity of the claim.
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She found it wasn’t that simple, and spent an hour after the rest of the family had gone to bed, trying to get to the bottom of it.
There was no way of checking the information through the Whitcoulls website. Croxley appeared to have stopped making the brand in 2015, and while there were some documents online suggesting they had an environmental certification through the enviromark programme run by Toitū Envirocare, there were no further details on Toitū’s website.
“Testing the description on the website by trying to find out about the certification was virtually impossible,” Fairbrother said.
She checked the Warwick books they’d bought last year and found they didn’t have an enviromark certification on them, although they did have a PEFC certification that the product was made from ‘sustainably managed forest and controlled sources’.
Her internet trawl revealed the brand was distributed by Acme Supplies, so she emailed the company at 7am the next morning and by 10am had received a reply confirming the product was not recycled, but was 70% PEFC certified.
Acme Supplies said the person responsible for the Warwick brand would advise Whitcoulls of the mistake on their website.
Almost a week later, and Whitcoulls has yet to respond to Fairbrother’s enquiry, despite an auto-generated response saying the company would be in touch in one to two working days.
Whitcoulls didn’t respond to Stuff’s request for comment, although the retailer has now changed the description for Warwick books on its website, to remove the reference to the product being made from recycled materials.
Fairbrother would like Whitcoulls to apologise to its customers for getting the information so wrong and would like them to be careful in the future to make correct claims about their products.
She would also like to see more transparency around certification information.
“It’s not easy to find information,” she said. “I’ve learned that you can’t take sustainability claims on the internet at face value and that it’s very difficult to test them yourself.
“It would be really good, first, if retailers got their claims correct in the first place, and were very careful about that, and second, it would be great if information about those claims was more transparent through the retailer, because that is where most people go for their information.”
With the increasing interest in environmental sustainability, particularly where young people are involved, Fairbrother believes she will not be the only parent who was looking to buy school supplies that are more sustainable.
“I’m just a bit worried that there are other people out there who saw the claim, didn’t investigate, and bought the product, not knowing.”
Even the experts get flummoxed by sustainability claims.
Otago University Associate Professor Sara Walton, who specialises in sustainability and business, has struggled to figure out the options herself.
“I’ve also stood for a long time trying to buy some paper one day – trying to figure out what one had more recycled content, local, quality etc. It is not easy and I know some of the labels!,” she said.
“It is really hard for consumers to navigate the multitude of different environmental labels, measures and impacts of products and services that we are consuming. It is also difficult to understand whether any of the measures are ‘good’.”
Walton noted that if a product emits 12kg of CO2 it is really hard to understand what that means and then compare that with the emissions from another product.
She said it was also hard to be able to know the integrity of the data, and if items were being re-sold, whether the retailer was making false claims, knowingly or even accidently.
Walton said environmental impacts were complex and having a system that measured the impact on the environment was being discussed by sustainability and climate consultancies, but would be difficult to figure out and may also be open to ‘greenwashing’.