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 in the zero-waste world (a type of greenwashing), 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 from 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 will be banned by 2021! (And therefore, way ahead of the curve in the US.) Canada is basically doing the same thing.
UPDATE: 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 the company, 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.)
Of course, Amazon sells a lot of fakes. So Isabel told me LastSwab decided to sell on Amazon, too, so they could at least compete with the fakes when people search for “reusable Q-tips.” She said it should also help because Amazon would want to show their products over the counterfeits – because theirs are higher quality, so fewer people would return them, and that makes life easier 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.)
Counterfeiters are a particularly bad example of “greenwashing,” which means companies trying to look sustainable, because they know lots of people want eco-friendly products. So they 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 – which 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 they’re selling will end up being thrown away – just like the disposable items they’re supposedly replacing.
And one bad experience will make people weary of legitimate reusable brands.
So here’s my review of the original:
LastSwab Review (Reusable Q-Tips)
Compared to cotton swabs, reusables 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 just a different concept, but if you keep an open mind it’s not hard to adapt to.
I prefer the “basic” swab to 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, 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.)
The cases for both 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, it 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 have 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.
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. It’s available on IndieGogo and should ship in March, 2021. (But for now, my favorite refillable, plastic-free hand sanitizer is this one, 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.
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.
Toss the used rounds in a small laundry bag to keep them separate (as I describe below), or let them dry on your bathroom counter and then slip them into the back of case.
(They recommend not putting them back in the 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 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. (I believe 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.)
Like all of their products, LastRound was funded on Kickstarter (in September, 2020). You can pre-order them here, but of course production is delayed due to COVID, so they’re expecting to deliver in December. (I got my hands of them because LastObject kindly sent me a sample to try.)
LastTissue Review (Reusable “Kleenex” with a Carrying Case)
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.
Also, I think they irritate my nose less than paper tissues, which lose little fibers everywhere.
Of course, another option would be 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.” What I mean by that is that it’s not like an alternative to single-use tissues didn’t already exist, and I think one of the main benefits of LastTissue is that it’s a reminder to seek out ways to avoid even the most innocent-seeming disposable items, like plastic-wrapped tissue packages. So if you don’t already have a collection of handkerchiefs, this is a great option.
The LastTissue carrying case is unique and handy (and can be washed in the dishwasher), but I think it would come open easily if it were tossed in bottomless pit of a purse. (A snug pocket would probably be safer.) I keep mine on my bathroom counter, and keep a laundry bag in a drawer to collect 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 small laundry bag 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.
You can also order laundry bags from Dropps (one of the plastic-free laundry companies I reviewed in another post). Or I like these bags, which I got on Amazon, because they come in sets with multiple sizes.
EarthSider Review – and Lessons Learned
The first EarthSider products I saw advertised were the reusable Q-tips, which have a very similar design to LastSwab’s. I had already read about LastObject and knew they were the original, so I was skeptical, but I decided to order one anyway for the sake of comparison.
The first red-flag was that the EarthSider package arrived in a black plastic bag – and black plastic, specifically, isn’t 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 I 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 long-term 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’ll 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 “sale” 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. (Even my email for this blog is firstname.lastname@example.org!) 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 of course 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 bullshit.
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.