In the world of environmental sustainability, there is far too much misinformation out there. It’s not only a result of intentional greenwashing, but the consequence of the tendency to explain complicated environmental problems in simplistic or one-sided terms. Such simplifications arise in part, because people do not take the time required to fully understand all the various factors relevant to truly improving their sustainability, or they haven’t had the right training to prepare them to think systemically. As Mahatma Gandhi once wrote, the problem with the world is that “…we have at the present moment everybody claiming the right of conscience without going through any discipline whatsoever, and there is so much untruth being delivered to a bewildered world. [1]

To call attention to this problem, I’d like to point out a few sustainability myths common to businesses, individuals and governments alike, in the hope that each of us will take more time to reflect on our own sustainability efforts and those of the organizations within which we work.
 

Myth #1 –Renewable Products Are Always Better Than Fossil Fuel Products. 

This depends strongly on the kind of product and on the application. So, there are cases in which renewable materials are clearly favorable. But there are also other applications in which fossil-fuel-based materials are still favorable… and may remain so indefinitely. It always depends on the product and use case you are using the materials in. So it’s very important to examine the complete lifecycle of the product, including production, use phase and end-of-life, because there are cases in which the use phase and the recycling or the end-of-life is the decisive phase with the greatest impact, and then it does not matter so much whether the production materials were renewable or fossil in origin, but rather how sustainably such materials are being used.

 

Myth #2 –Material Bans Always Help Improve the Environmental Performance of Products.  

There is the famous example of the lead ban in electronic products in which lead was banned, but no one gave guidance as to what should be used in its stead. So, companies substituted it with antimony, which is clearly a better solution than lead. But then, at the same time, other companies substituted it with silver, which is clearly a worse option than lead in terms of impact. So sustainability does not need bans, it needs better solutions, and therefore we need to look at alternatives first before we ban certain materials.

 

Myth #3 – Bioethanol Will Always Help Improve Your Country’s Environmental Performance.

As you know, Brazil is a very important bioethanol producer, and many people, even governments, think that they can improve on the environmental performance of a country’s fuel mix if they switch to using bioethanol without looking upstream into the lifecycle. Here it is decisive how the raw materials—in this case the crops—are produced. There are two different ways of producing bioethanol in Brazil. There is a mechanical way in which you do not need to burn the sugar cane fields to harvest it, sparing all the emissions caused by burning the fields. And there is a traditional way of harvesting the sugar cane that includes burning. So, there are situations in which you can shift the tailpipe emissions of cars in Europe to the fields of Brazil by purchasing fuel produced by burning the sugar cane first before it becomes biofuel.

 

Myth #4 – Avoiding PVC Is Always Good.

Another myth is that a PVC ban always leads to an environmental improvement mainly in the building industry because PVC is most often talked about or started to be talked about in the building industry. There are of course applications where you can find suitable alternatives to PVC, no question. But there are also certain where you hardly find a better alternative. For instance, all rigid applications like window frames are extremely or can be, depending on how they are produced, they can be extremely well in environmental performance because you do not have to repaint them, they have a long durability, they can easily be recycled so therefore again here it is important to look at the alternatives specifically for pipes and other rigid products like window frames. PVC has a lot of strength so it does not help us to just ban it away and then we don't have better alternatives in place. So therefore as PVC is very, or was, very prominently in the discussion, meanwhile it's not so much in discussion anymore, but still you see these PVC bans talked here and there. We need LCA to find a suitable and better alternative first before we ban it out of the products. 
 

 

Myth #5 – Improving Your Sustainability Performance Only Requires You to Examine Your Carbon Footprint.

Another myth is that you can make sustainability improvements just by looking at your carbon balance. A carbon footprint (or carbon balance) is surely an important aspect, especially in the global warming discussion, but still it's not the whole story. Let’s take the example of a product that uses a lot of electricity. You want to reduce carbon. Maybe you decide to shift your production to Norway, where you can get about 80% hydropower, which would surely improve your environmental performance, not only in carbon, but most likely in a lot of other environmental impacts. But if you move to a country like France, which has about 80% nuclear power, the carbon indicator (a single indicator) doesn't work anymore, because you are simply shifting the burden from the fossil carbon emissions to nuclear power-related emissions, which are related to the radiation of the material used in nuclear power generation. So low carbon is an important indicator, but it still doesn’t assess the entirety of the sustainability for a process or product. You always need the whole picture of all relevant impacts to finally get a sustainability improvement and not only an improvement in efficiency for a particular element of your performance.
 


 


[1] Young India, December 31, 1931. Page 428.