What’s your biggest pet peeve? If you know me, you probably know that I can’t stand anything fake. Things, people or companies that claim to be something they’re not drive me insane. And the market for eco-friendly, natural, zero-waste, or any other category of sustainable products is absolutely flooded with fakes.
Two brands make a great example of this: LastSwab (the original) and EarthSider (one of many knock-offs). I tested both companies’ reusable “Q-Tips” for this review, and the difference in quality was clear.
That’s why I wanted to call attention to this problem (a type of greenwashing) in the zero-waste world, and also share some tips for how to spot fake zero-waste brands (below).
What is LastSwab?
LastSwab is the first reusable “cotton” swab (AKA, Q-Tip, cotton bud, you know – the things you stick in your ears even though you’re not supposed to). It’s far less weird than it may sound. LastSwab launched through crowdfunding in 2019 by a Danish start-up called LastObject, which I’ve become a big fan of. Their mission is sustainability through design: They invent reusable replacements for single-use products.
And they’re ahead of the curve even for Europe, where many single-use plastic items were going to be banned by 2021! (At least that was the plan before the pandemic.) And that makes them way ahead of the curve in the US. Canada is basically doing the same thing.
Cool Initiative: Instead of Black Friday, LastObject is doing a promotion called Green November with Plastic Bank – a social enterprise that pays people in developing countries to turn in plastic that would otherwise end up in the ocean.
What about the knock-offs?
LastSwab is a great example of an eco-friendly product that has been aggressively counterfeited from the moment it was clear people were interested in it.
I talked with Isabel Aagaard, one of three founders of LastObject, about this. She said it only took three days after they launched their Kickstarter campaign for the first fakes to show up online!
“It’s not that we don’t want other people in the market. We’d love if they did quality products – if they did a quality swab that would actually last. But because they’re doing crappy versions of our products, they’re actually creating more waste.”Isabel Aagaard
So many companies knocked-off the original LastSwab design that Isabel said she couldn’t even remember them all. FinalSwab and EarthSider are two of the most prominent counterfeiters. (FinalSwab even has the exact same questions and answers on their FAQ page as LastSwab – literally cut-and-pasted right down to the emojis.)
Amazon & Fake LastSwabs
Of course, Amazon sells a lot of fakes. So Isabel told me LastSwab decided to sell on Amazon, too. That way, they could at least compete with the fakes when people search for “reusable Q-tips” on Amazon. She said it should also help because Amazon wants to show their authentic products over the counterfeits – because theirs are higher quality, so fewer people will return them, and that makes life easier and margins higher for Team Bezos.
(When I searched for “reusable qtips” and even for “lastswab,” the only legitimate LastSwab store on Amazon did come up first, but a bunch of fakes were right next to it.)
What is Greenwashing?
Counterfeiters are a particularly bad example of “greenwashing,” a term for companies trying to make themselves look sustainable, because they know lots of people want eco-friendly products. So they find a way to label their cheap junk “green,” jumping on the sustainability bandwagon to make a profit.
“Many soap brands are slapping the words “shampoo bar” on their soaps, which are not actually formulated for shampooing, and certainly not optimal for the skin and hair.”100 Senses
It’s one thing when a fake is just less enjoyable than the original (like imitation flavorings or “lite” beer – two things I still can’t stand). But it’s way worse when fakes steal from the original creator and cause more harm than good. Because, just like Isabel said, the junk that counterfeiters sell will end up being thrown away – just like the disposable items they’re supposedly replacing.
Plus, one bad experience can make people weary of legitimately sustainable brands and high-quality reusable products.
So here are my reviews of the entire, original, LastObject line-up:
LastSwab Review (Reusable Q-Tips)
Compared to cotton swabs, reusable Q-tips do take some getting used to. Since they’re not made of cotton, of course they don’t absorb moisture, but the little nubs do a good job of collecting whatever’s built-up inside your ear. It’s a different concept, but if you keep an open mind it’s not hard to adapt to.
I found the original “basic” swab more useful than the “beauty” version, which is designed for makeup touch-ups. I keep the basic on the shelf in my shower, in its storage case, use it to clean my ears, then rinse it.
The material used for the beauty swabs is just a little bit harder than the original, and I think it makes it tough to do touch-ups or wipe away excess eye makeup without dragging my skin a little. (Although LastSwab’s FAQ page recommends dipping them in makeup remover for touch-ups. Instead, I usually end up ripping off a tiny corner of toilet paper, adding a drop of water, and using that on the end of the beauty swab.)
Bonus: LastObject offers separate mirrors that you can attach inside the beauty swab case to create a handy little compact. What I love most about the concept is that it’s an add-on (a very affordable one). Meaning if you don’t want it, they don’t sell it to you – and it doesn’t become another piece of waste in your medicine cabinet. Win-win.
What if my swab breaks? Or I stop using it?
The cases for both LastObject swabs are biodegradable – they’re made of PLA (polylactic acid), a bioplastic made out of corn.
That doesn’t mean they can be composted in your garden, though. PLA requires an industrial composting facility, with specific heat and moisture so the bacteria that breaks it down will thrive. But the point is, by being made out of plant material instead of petroleum, it’s not contributing to demand for oil (and is in fact increasing demand for alternatives to oil). And unlike plastics in a landfill, a piece of PLA won’t let off toxic residue or micro-plastics that pollute soil and water.
Q: Why not just use biodegradable swabs made from cotton and paper?
Whether your Q-Tips are made of plastic and cotton, paper and wood, or alternatives like hemp and bamboo, the problem is that they’re single-use. Those materials still have to be farmed (using chemicals, water and land), harvested, shipped to a factory, turned into the final product, packaged (often in plastic), and shipped again to a store or warehouse.
After all that effort – and all those carbon emissions and pollution – they’re used for 10 seconds and thrown away. And this is all new! It’s only in the last few decades that we’ve created this throw-away product lifecycle.
Even the cotton swabs labeled “biodegradable” are not much better. As LastSwab explains it on their website:
“If you bury a paper swab in a landfill and go back in five, ten, fifteen years, they still wouldn’t biodegrade. Even a banana peel, if left without light and air, would continue to be a banana peel years later.”LastObject
Biodegradable doesn’t mean compostable, and either one requires specific conditions to break down. So the best option is to just avoid as many single-use products as we can.
Beyond reusable Q-tips, LastObject currently makes two other single-use replacements: LastRound (to replace cotton pads or cotton balls) and LastTissue (to replace portable Kleenex packs and boxes).
And Isabel told me they’re working on five or six more reusable toiletry items, so I’m excited to see what they come up with next! You’ll probably see more reviews here as they’re launched.
UPDATE: Just a week after I finished this review, LastObject announced another new product: LastMask, with a refillable hand sanitizer spray bottle. They launched the set on IndieGogo, and it’s now available to order directly from LastObject (as of April, 2021). The bottle comes empty, but you can fill it with my favorite plastic-free hand sanitizer (which also made my master list of sustainable toiletries).
LastRound Review (Reusable Cotton Pads)
These are LastObject’s newest invention, and so far they’re my favorite. I think they’re one of the easiest reusable products to get used to – they’re almost indistinguishable from regular disposable cotton pads. (In fact, that’s one thing to keep in mind: the LastRounds look and feel so similar to disposable cotton pads that you have make an effort to remember not to automatically toss them in the trash!)
The rounds are 70% wood, 30% organic cotton, and they feel rough when they’re dry, but as soon as you wet them with water or toner, they’re perfectly soft.
Tips for taking care of your LastRounds:
Toss the used rounds in a small washing bag to keep them separate from the fresh ones (as I describe below), or let them dry on your bathroom counter and then slip them into the back of case for safe-keeping.
LastObject recommends not putting the rounds back in their case wet. At first, I ignored this advice, because the case is open on both sides, so I thought they would still dry quickly. But then I noticed that if I put even one round back in damp, it didn’t dry for a couple of days.
LastRound is made in Denmark in a sustainable factory that recycles its water. (Some of their other products have been made in China, but not every Chinese factory has the same working conditions or environmental record.)
And water conservation is a part of what makes LastRound more sustainable than disposables – LastObject says each round saves 10 liters of clean water needed to produce disposables. (Cotton is a water- and pesticide-intensive crop, so growing it just to throw it away doesn’t make much sense.)
LastTissue Review (Reusable “Kleenex” with a Carrying Case)
Frankly, I didn’t have much hope for these when I first saw them, but they’ve surprised me.
I thought the organic cotton “tissues” would be too thick and stiff to use comfortably, but they actually work perfectly well and soften up with a couple of washes.
Bonus if you have allergies: I think the reusable LastTissues irritate my nose less than disposable paper tissues, which are rougher and shed little fibers everywhere. It’s a great help for raw winter skin, too.
Of course, another alternative to LastTissue is to just use regular washable handkerchiefs (I still have a collection of them from my grandmother).
You could definitely do that. And of all the LastObject products, this is probably the most “symbolic” – but also one of the easiest to use.
What I mean is that it’s not like a reusable alternative to single-use tissues didn’t already exist. I think one of the main points of LastTissue is that it’s a reminder to seek out ways to avoid even the most innocent-seeming disposable items, like individually plastic-wrapped tissue packages. So if you don’t already have a collection of handkerchiefs, LastTissue is a great option.
Another benefit is the LastTissue carrying case, which is sturdy and handy – and can be washed in the dishwasher.
It does tend to come open easily when tossed in bottomless pit of a purse. (A snug pocket is a better plan.) At home, I keep mine on my bathroom counter, and keep a laundry bag in a drawer to collect both my used Tissues and Rounds.
Q: How do you clean LastTissue & LastRound?
Both the tissues and rounds are machine washable, and LastObject makes their own organic cotton washing bags for this purpose – you don’t want these tiny items getting lost in the wash, and the protection of the bag keeps them in better shape longer.
They make a small bag designed for LastRound, and a larger one for LastTissue – but I think it makes sense to just go for the large one no matter which products you’re planning to use it for. (I wash everything delicate in laundry bags, so I can always fill the extra space.)
Alternatives: You can also order these bags, which I got on Amazon and use for almost everything, as I describe in my review of some zero-waste laundry products. (I like them because they come in sets with multiple sizes.)
EarthSider Review – and Lessons Learned
The first EarthSider products I saw advertised were their reusable Q-tips, which have a very similar design to LastSwab’s. I had already read about LastObject and knew they were the original inventors – so I was skeptical, but I decided to order a swab from EarthSider anyway for the sake of comparison.
The first red-flag was that the EarthSider package arrived in a black plastic bag. Any plastic packaging would be bad enough, but black plastic, specifically, isn’t even recyclable in most facilities.
Every legitimate sustainable brand I’ve ordered for these reviews – including LastObject, and all the companies I tested for my reviews of shampoo bars and cleaning products – shipped in minimal packaging without plastic. Most use corrugated cardboard (the most easily recyclable kind), with paper packing tape instead of plastic, and often compostable interior packaging. So a supposedly sustainable company shipping items in black plastic just doesn’t make sense.
When I tried the counterfeit EarthSider swabs, I quickly realized that the silicone tips (what would be the cotton part of a disposable Q-Tip) detach from the stem very easily – including inside my ear. (I tried pulling the tips off of my LastSwabs and they don’t budge.)
Also, the material of the basic EarthSider swab is much softer than LastSwab’s (too soft), which makes it not as good for scraping dirt out of your ear.
If you’ve ordered from a phony sustainable company like this, don’t feel bad!
Their websites and social media are designed to look like they care about helping people reduce their environmental impact. And, like all online scammers, they count on people not having time to scrutinize a website for signs of phoniness.
So I came up with five ways to tell the difference:
How to Spot Greenwashing or Fake Zero-Waste Brands (from their websites)
These are the things I found on FinalSwab’s and EarthSider’s websites that make it clear they’re not real zero-waste companies. This is a checklist of what to pay attention to (before you buy) when you’re wondering whether a brand you’ve found is legit. (Regardless of whether it’s a sustainability-focused company.)
- Grammatical errors. EarthSider’s website is full of bad English – which even I can admit is not a crime! But it’s something any legitimate company tries really hard to avoid. A serious company knows first impressions count, and the more you come back to their site, the more you’ll notice details like grammatical errors in whatever language the site is written. Brands that want to be around for a long time want to earn your trust and keep you as a returning customer. And that won’t happen if the more you pay attention to their site, the less you trust them.
- High-priced products that are always “on sale.” EarthSider’s reusable “cotton” swabs are listed at $25.90 for a set of two swabs, but they’re always “on sale” for $12.95 for the set. This is a classic shady sales tactic to make you feel like you’re getting a deal! (I checked several times from May to October, and the “discount” was always the same.)
- A generic email address (like @gmail.com). Every serious company has what’s called a “domain email address,” meaning it ends with @CompanyName.com – not @gmail.com, @yahoo.com, etc. (My email address for this blog is email@example.com.) This isn’t a 100% sure way to prove a company isn’t a scammer (for example, EarthSider has a domain email, while FinalSwab just lists a Gmail account, even though both are counterfeiters). But any real company definitely will have a branded email address.
- Unsubstantiated claims of charitable contributions. EarthSider claims to “donate a portion of our profits to causes that support cleaning the environment, such as our ocean and forests,” but gives no specifics. (And “cleaning our ocean” – really?) I emailed them several times asking for details – which organizations do you support? What percentage of your profits do you donate? – and they never responded.
Any legitimate company would be able answer those questions easily. Or at least they would respond and explain why they can’t answer. (For example, maybe they support different organizations each month. Or if you’re asking about materials, they might respond that it’s a trade secret.) But they’ll definitely respond, which brings me to one more thing to watch out for.
- Bad customer service. Just like I said with the bad grammar – good companies want to build relationships with their customers. If they don’t even take the time to respond to emails, it’s clear they’re looking for quick sales, not long-term fans. (For comparison, remember Isabel, the co-founder of LastObject? She spent an hour on the phone with me answering every question I had.)
This is an easy way to test what kind of company you’re dealing with. Just go to the contact form on their website and type out a message like this:
You mentioned in your Mission Statement that you “donate a portion of your profits to causes that support cleaning the environment.” I think that’s great! I was just wondering, which specific environmental organizations you support?
As a matter of fact, you could send that exact message to EarthSider. Their contact form is here. Just copy, paste, add your name at the bottom, and definitely let me know if you hear anything!
Of course, I know this won’t make a scamming, greenwashing company change or disappear. But I like the idea of someone at their HQ realizing people are paying attention to their lies.
If you come across other sites selling knock-offs of LastObject products, you can report them to LastObject here, so their lawyers can deal with them.
As you may have noticed from my recent blog posts, using less plastic and fewer disposable items has become a bit of an obsession for me – although I think the biggest hurdle to get over in the beginning is letting go of trying to be perfect. That’s what I’m working on. You don’t have to be “zero-waste.” Just less-waste is enough. Every little bit really does help, so the important thing is to start.
And remember not to fall for phony “eco-friendly” companies. Even (or especially) if their products cost less. Cheap is cheap, and low-quality is part of the problem, not the solution.
Want to read more sustainable product reviews?
You’re in luck, because I’ve been doing a lot of them! Check them out below, and if you want to suggest something for me to review, leave it in the comments. 🙂
- Menstrual Underwear (Review of Thinx styles + discount code)
- Toothpaste Tablets (several brands compared + biodegradable floss, plastic-free mouthwash and more)
- Plastic-free Deodorants (PAPR vs byHumankind, plus other options)
- Shampoo & Conditioner Bars (that actually work)
- Plastic-free Cleaning & Laundry Products
- MASTER LIST of Plastic-free Toiletries (the winners from all the reviews above and more!)