The plastic straw, a once ubiquitous accessory for chilled drinks, has been falling out of favor in recent years because of a growing backlash over its impact on the environment. Major companies, including Starbucks, Hilton, and American Airlines have pledged to reduce or totally eliminate plastic straws by 2020 — all as a result of a powerful public campaign.
The movement to eliminate single-use straws is one example of something bigger at play: Americans want to clean up their consumption. We know this from JUST Capital’s annual survey – which asks the American public what they care about most when it comes to business practices.
After worker-related issues such as paying employees a fair wage for industry and job level, paying a living wage (that covers basic expenses like housing and medical care), and providing a good benefits package, core priorities of the public include making products and offering services that do not harm health, the environment, or society, and minimizing pollution and cleaning up after any environmental damage.
In addition to those ditching plastic straws, some of the world’s biggest corporations are making major moves to help protect our planet. In 2019 alone, Apple allocated $2.5 billion to 40 environmental initiatives around the world, Amazon pledged to be carbon neutral by 2040, and Target committed to source 100% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
Such public declarations of responsibility are easier to track, but knowing whether the products you use every day are harmful to the environment may require a little research.
You can start by using our interactive Rankings — and the individual metrics and data points we track — here. Use the drop-down menu on the right to find out how companies perform on all the environmental issues we track, from having policies and practices to protect the environment to reducing waste to minimizing pollution.
If you want to dig deeper and evaluate a specific product’s environmental impact — as well as the role you can play in minimizing harm — follow these five steps.
Step #1: Check for EPA Violations
Goods made outside the U.S. aren’t subject to our environmental regulations, but you can search for domestic violations via the Environmental Protection Agency’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) tool. The database allows you to search for EPA cases by company name, industry, location, and more.
For instance, if you’re in the market for new, American-made jeans, you can search for cases against textile companies. The absence of a violation doesn’t guarantee a company isn’t polluting, it just means they haven’t overstepped the acceptable boundaries as defined by the EPA. But the tool is still useful for uncovering flagrant offenders.
Step #2: Research the Company’s Self-Reported Climate Impact
Combing through press releases that promise sustainability won’t reveal much, as it’s impossible to know whether a corporate effort to offset carbon production is truly making a dent in the company’s total emissions.
A better approach: Look to third-party organizations that track the carbon emissions of companies that elect to disclose their data. The Carbon Disclosure Project, for example, published environmental information on 7,000 companies in 2018, ranking them based on the actions they’ve taken to lessen their carbon footprints. Not all of the data is available for free, but you can search your favorite brands to see whether they’ve been scored on their climate impact.
Much of the environmental data companies report is filed as CSR data, which stands for Corporate Social Responsibility — a measure that helps investors decide how to allocate their funds based on their ethical priorities.
Unfortunately, the databases aren’t always free to search, but you can search the individual reports companies publish on their own CSR goals via sites like CSRwire.com. They’re not scrutinized by a third-party, but they provide insight on how companies judge their own sustainability efforts.
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Step #3: Observe Where It’s Made
Products that are imported typically get here on container ships, which contribute to 4% of global carbon emissions. Container ships burn bunker fuel, a high-sulfur sludge left over from the oil refining process. The thick, brown liquid is highly toxic to aquatic life, not to mention the global warming effects of burning it.
Most of our favorite tchotchkes from the bargain bin are brought here on ships, so while switching to locally made goods (or at least those manufactured in North America) may come with a price increase, you’ll also decrease your carbon footprint.
Step #4: Inspect the Packaging
Products like household appliances often come in big cardboard boxes filled with non-biodegradable Styrofoam that’s destined for the landfill. That’s bad, considering packing waste accounts for more than 29% of all municipal solid waste in the U.S., according to the EPA. In 2015, Americans trashed nearly 80 million tons of product packaging.
Carefully separating your recycling isn’t solving the problem: A University of Georgia analysis found that 91% of plastic is never recycled, as major recycling buyers like China have stopped accepting our leftovers.
Recycling cardboard and plastic packaging helps by preventing those materials from ending up in a landfill (or the ocean), but minimizing your consumption of single-use packaging is the most eco-friendly option. Avoid products shrouded in extravagant, unnecessary packaging, as they require more energy to produce and ship than goods packed in smaller containers.
Step #5: Consider Where it Ends Up
The amount of time you spend with a product before discarding it represents only a small portion of that product’s lifespan on earth. Plastic microbeads, for instance, were once popular in exfoliant scrubs and toothpastes but have faced scrutiny for their harmful effect on sea life. Plastic straws saw a similar fate, and no one wants to see a seagull wearing a plastic six-pack ring as a hat.
Before you buy, consider how much use you’re likely to get out of a product and where it’s likely to go when you’re finished with it. Egg cartons and Styrofoam can become packing materials, glass jars can be used for candles or food storage, and old T-shirts can become rags — all of these measures save you money while reducing your impact.
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