You’ve likely heard an old chestnut about ‘strawberry flavour’ vs ‘strawberry flavoured.’ Eating something containing ‘strawberry flavour’ does not mean you’re about to get your one-of-five a day. In fact, ‘strawberry flavour’ can mean the strawberry infusion is entirely artificial. Only if something is ‘strawberry flavoured’ (or anything flavoured), does it contain the named ingredient. Two letters make all the difference in this marketing ‘loophole.’ Originally meaning a slit in a wall for firing arrows, ‘loophole’ now refers to the presence of an unfair advantage in advertising and the law.

Marketing Loopholes

In the early 2000s, record labels found a loophole to increase sales. They produced more than one CD for the same song. Known as ‘CD 1 and CD 2,’ each disk included a set of features not available on the other. Fans often complained that the most appealing features — typically the music video and remix — never appeared on the same CD. In this way, record companies could legally exploit fans’ loyalty by accurately describing the product’s contents using the Trade Description Act 1968.

Releasing two CDs emerged because it was under the radar. The music technology scene (streaming, downloads) had not yet crystallised in the public domain. Playing a music video on demand — instead of waiting for MTV to show it — was a luxury. Fans’ frustration and naivety were ruthlessly monetised.

Fast forward to 2024, and environmental policy is suffering a similar fate. Climate justice legislation is in the developmental stage. Consumers never quite know how environmentally friendly their products really are. Knowledge about ingredients and manufacturing methods is hard-gained. Rather than enlightening us, producers capitalise on the confusion and general ignorance to make their products appear more ecologically sound than they are. Greenwashing is the term used for marketing loopholes that make products seem more sustainable. After being named the ‘first non-coal company to join Europe’s top 10 carbon emitters,’ Ryanair advertised itself as ‘Europe’s lowest fares, lowest emissions airline.’ Brass nerve aside. This level of misinformation has severe, long-term consequences for the health of our planet.

Another example of a marketing loophole can be found on the packaging for toilet disinfectant tablets with their green ‘recyclable’ symbol and, in some cases, a ‘not tested on animals’ note. To the unsuspecting eye, the product appears ecologically safe. But look closer at the ‘Harmful to aquatic life with long-lasting effects’ warning on the instructions label. The goal is to get us to buy the product and consider the consequences later. Most customers believe they are being green, when they’re actually, and unsuspectingly, sponsoring environmental damage. In this case, the continued destruction of the reefs — with 50 per cent already lost to pollution — and our waters — the source of over half of the world’s oxygen supply.

As well as capitalising on confusion and ambiguity, omission is key to greenwashing. When we recycle, we believe we are helping to conserve the Earth’s finite resources by reusing what we have. Recall the pithy ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ slogan. However, recycling certain materials is not a straightforward business. Only 6 per cent of plastic wrapping on our supermarket shelves is recycled. The rest goes to landfill sites which reduces the space for afforestation. Site mismanagement causes 12 million tonnes of plastic to end up in the Earth’s waters every year; the equivalent of one truckload of rubbish every minute. This perhaps helps explain why over 90 per cent of Americans have BPA — the plastic chemical — in their urine. BPA (bisphenol A) has been linked to increased breast cancer risk.

With just a few everyday examples, it becomes easy to see how misinformation circulates and creates a huge (endangered?) butterfly effect.

Feathering the Nest

When it comes to sports and the manufacturing of certain parts, environmental transparency becomes even more obsucre.

Badminton is one of the best-loved sports in the world, with approximately 339 million people playing it. But did you know that the ‘crown’ of the shuttlecock may be made with a plastic ‘skirt’ or sixteen bird feathers?

From amateurs to professionals, most assume the feathers are sustainable. This is unsurprising, given the misleading branding. Commonly, packaging describes the shuttlecocks as ‘durable’. Sure, hypothetically we can make the shuttles last but how to enhance longevity is still debated. In truth, the feather shuttlecocks come with no in-built durability and each lasts literally ten minutes! As a result, they have to be changed frequently during matches.

The confusion about shuttlecocks doesn’t end here. Most badminton players believe that the feathers are synthetic. Easily done. You may well see shuttles labelled ‘HYBRID’, giving the impression of synthetics interwoven together or with natural products to make the skirt. What the branding doesn’t reveal is that the feathers are 100 per cent real and come from the wings of ducks and geese.  Manufacturers will often label them ‘natural shuttlecocks,’ which calls to mind an ethical or ecological item, when ‘natural’ just means the feathers are real.

Real-feather shuttlecocks are used by high-level players and ‘approved’ by the Badminton World Federation, including for international tournaments. The reason feathers have long been ‘the most popular type of shuttlecock in badminton’ owes to the widespread claim that they are ‘less affected by air drag’ and offer enhanced flight stability — despite players finding the opposite to be true. By all indicators, the humble shuttlecock is another victim of misinformation.

Some Skin In The Game

The process by which feathers become the crown of a shuttlecock is the stuff of nightmares. Defenceless birds have them ripped out of their wings without any measures taken to alleviate their suffering. This is known as ‘live plucking,’ a method more painful than removing clumps of human hair. Live plucking is practised on unregulated plantations in Asia and in countries without welfare laws. Exploited, desperate labourers, earn a pittance doing this in filthy conditions. The plucking draws blood and poses a serious risk of viral outbreaks. Shuttlecock packaging sometimes describes feathers as being ‘selected’ — a euphemism for birds being ‘ruthlessly plucked.’ The frequent changing of shuttles per game suggests that, on average, 48 birds are harmed and tortured for a tube of 12 feather shuttlecocks (standard stock in any sports shop). Sales figures indicate that almost a billion birds per year suffer excruciating agony for the sake of these single-use products.

Preventing birds from exhibiting their natural behaviour and impairing their ability to fly negatively impacts ecosystems, crop cycles and food justice. Live plucking is condemned by the EDFA (European Down and Feather Association), the CFDIA (China Feather and Down Industrial Association), as well as any given down-and-feather organisation. But despite considerable opposition, the practice continues to exist and is hard to eradicate. Even environmentalists demonstrating in London were unaware of live plucking being used in badminton.

Online searches return very little information. Live plucking is under the radar because farms continually relocate to maintain cover. The constant moving contributes to pollution; transportation tanks burn many chemicals.

Spitting Feathers

When amateur player Sarah Wild discovered the horrors of live plucking, she started the ‘Duck Off’ project. Duck Off aims to ban feather shuttles and achieve total transparency in badminton advertising. Attempting to tackle greenwashing, Sarah only found more of it.

Search online, and you will find innumerable reports of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) going green and phasing in synthetic and plastic shuttles ‘in all the tournaments’ from 2021. But all is not as it seems.

The words ‘in all the tournaments’ do a lot of heavy lifting. BWF never claimed that synthetic shuttlecocks were the new default product. Similarly, the BWF website only gives the names of its approved shuttles. By omitting the components, it privately endorses feather shuttles. Only when browsing separate, unaffiliated vending sites will you see that most of the approved shuttlecocks are made from goose feathers. It seems then, that the claim of going synthetic was just that; a claim.

Evidence of mysterious backtracking can be seen as early as 2019.  After ‘COP19 put pressure on businesses to go more eco-friendly,’ manufacturer VICTOR dropped out of launching the new synthetic model, halting the planned conversion to plastic shuttles. The reason behind the withdrawal remains a mystery that plagues badminton forum chats. Rather than making an official announcement, the ensuing silence suggested a ‘cover-up.’ Even more bizarre is the fact that a very suitable synthetic shuttlecock, mimicking the ‘flight of the feather shuttle’ does exist. The Bird 3, is described as the first ‘nylon [that has] felt and flown so much like a feather shuttle.’ However, its founder was ‘unable to get approval from BWF,’ despite the Federation expressing a desire for synthetics.

But animal welfare is not the only issue at stake here. Allowing products made from live plucking violates a range of modern values including ending human suffering, minimum wage legislation, and inclusivity. As a committed vegan, Sarah ‘faced exclusion from professional badminton.’ As long as tournaments use feather shuttles, vegans cannot participate. Setting out to assert her rights, Sarah only found more loopholes that hindered her mission. The Equality Act seemed likely to fall on the side of feather shuttles and protecting those who do not observe a strict vegan lifestyle. The Vegan Society, a seemingly obvious avenue, only covers food and cosmetics. Their personnel are chiefly concerned with ‘unfair treatment claims,’ as opposed to campaigning for change.

Without any concrete way of implementing feather-free badminton, Sarah approached the Badminton Society’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) committee. They put her in touch with a vegan badminton club, which seemed ideal. There was just one catch. It’s ‘not available to the general public’ and ‘may take ten years’ before it is. Nobody would guess so much red tape exists. The club’s website misleadingly encourages interested players to ‘simply sign up.

After having waited for months, Sarah still hasn’t received the club’s invitation to meet in person. ‘You can’t just go along, they have to invite you and they said I’m not allowed to turn up,’ she tells me. So much for vegan-friendly badminton.

Whether it’s a vegan badminton club or synthetic shuttlecocks, marketing loopholes create the impression that green alternatives exist. Whether they are easily accessible or indeed in wider circulation is another matter. Predominantly, businesses operate on a model of providing the bare minimum when it comes to meeting environmental aims, yet advertise themselves as going above and beyond. This deceptive practice needs to stop.

It should not be up to a marginalised environmental group to call out the cruelty involved in the manufacture of a standard-stock item. It makes you wonder what other dystopian horrors have been greenwashed and loop-holed from view. We deserve transparency, and we will get it by demanding to know the truth.

Image By Sara-Jade Wilde

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