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Creating an eco-friendly sex tech industry: sustainable values or greenwashing tactics?

6

When you think of sustainability, the first thought to enter your mind probably isn’t sex toys. But when we’re talking about a market worth 35 billion, perhaps it should be… The phrase on every industry’s lips in for the past couple of years is “net zero” so where does the sextech industry fit into the conversation? Is there such a thing as an eco-friendly sex tech industry?

Well, where normalizing pleasure and helping people enjoy healthy sex lives are concerned, the sextech industry is unstoppable and certainly something to be celebrated. But there are all kinds of issues around sustainability given the way sex toys are produced, transported, stored, and disposed of when they are no longer wanted.

According to one study from 2021, globally “seventy-eight percent of individuals over the age of 18 have at least one sex toy” – that’s a lot of silicone. But what happens when a toy breaks, when we don’t want it anymore, or even when the batteries die? Charity shops don’t want your second-hand devices, and it’s not exactly easy to recycle a vibrator. So how do we look toward a more sustainable sex tech industry?

Promotional graphic debating the sustainability of eco-friendly sex tech.
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Defining & refining a sustainable sex toy

Sustainable sex toy companies and eco-friendly sex toys are on the rise. These toys and gadgets are made from recycled and recyclable materials, their packaging is less wasteful and mostly biodegradable and these are marketed to a more conscious consumer.

While materials like graphene are predicted to be on the cards for the next big sustainable material in sex tech, the current definition of a sustainable sex toy is a little wooly. This is because there is no real gold standard for sustainability in the sextech industry, and, as with almost every other industry, you’ll probably see your fair share of greenwashing when you’re browsing for your new bedside BFF.

But some brands really are putting the work in.

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“The process has been a lot more complicated compared to our normal one,” says Amina from Sinful, the company responsible for Ohhcean – a brand that manufactures sex toys from ocean-bound plastic.

Sinful started out due to “this pressing feeling concerning the issue of plastic polluting the oceans. When we discovered that we could combine it with our mission of a playful sex life for everyone, it just made sense.”

But, she explains, it’s not exactly easy to do the right thing for the environment when you’re making a vibrator. “The ocean-bound plastic that is collected in and around the ocean reacts differently than virgin plastic when melted and put into molds. It took a lot more testing and time to find the perfect fit and to learn how the material reacted. It wasn’t an easy process and we were tested on our patience. But that also makes it feel so good to finally have made it here.”

Ultimately, it comes down to the brand taking responsibility to go the extra mile. Something that brands like The Natural Love Company are doing. Ben Foster, the company’s founder explains that sustainability has to be a consideration at every stage in a sex toy’s lifecycle.

One has to consider, “Could this single toy design incorporate the functions of multiple toys, say clitoral suction on one end and wand vibrator on the other? Could one remote [control] work with the whole range? Are the best quality components used to extend the useful life of the product as much as possible? Does the design incorporate the use of more sustainable materials, such as recycled plastics?” There’s a lot to think about, both as a creator and as a consumer.

“In terms of packaging, we see single-use materials from un-recycled sources as totally inexcusable when it comes to SexTech packaging,” says Ben. “And then, when the product comes to the natural end of its life, did you educate the customer on how it should be recycled?”

The Natural Love company launched its Second Coming campaign and sextech giant Lovehoney briefly ran its now defunct Rabbit Amnesty program, offering shoppers the opportunity to return rabbit vibrators to be recycled. More brands are launching sex toy recycling schemes that will hopefully stay the course, such as Ann Summers and Squeaky Clean Toys, although arguably, not enough companies are offering programs like this to match the sheer number of toys being sold and thrown away.

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Under the EU Waste Electrical Equipment (WEEE) Regulations, householders have a Duty of Care to dispose of waste electrical equipment properly – it’s no longer good enough to throw old electrical equipment, including vibrators, in the kitchen bin. It’s UK law that you have to dispose of your batteries and your broken vibrators responsibly.

But this doesn’t account for the masses of single-use toys, or non-biodegradable silicone fleshlights and sex dolls that make their way to landfill sites. And to combat this, the best way is to buy sustainably in the first place, rather than think about the planet after the fact.

Making sextech sustainable matters

If the sextech industry is serious about sustainability, its products with a low carbon footprint are going to make all the difference. This is where brands like Ohhcean, The Natural Love Company, and Love Not War come in.

Love Not War takes an interesting approach, fashioning its gadgets from recycled aluminum and combining a powerful rumbly motor with a single handle compatible with a range of different attachments. This way, you’re investing in one vibrator and either a wand, a rabbit, or a pinpointed clitoral stimulator head that you can switch out, depending on your preference.

This multifunctionality not only streamlines your toybox but also means fewer motors, batteries, and chunks of silicone. Love Not War has also attempted to solve the issue of needing to buy more toys that work well with different types of lube by creating NEOsilicone – a type of silicone that’s compatible with silicone lube. Typically silicone lube and silicone toys should not be used together as it may damage the toy.

These kinds of changes matter because sextech is seeing huge leaps in annual growth. Ben from The Natural Love company reports 400% year-on-year growth for his brand since its launch in 2020. “A majority of people no longer see sex toys or sextech products as ‘taboo’ or ‘unconventional’ and some clear cultural shifts are happening with topics such as sexuality and pleasure becoming destigmatized,” says Ben.

“In particular, as sex toy use becomes seen as acceptable and normal for an ever-increasing audience, companies like ours must be mindful of the environmental impact of our products. Until very recently the sex toy industry was marked by its heavy use of unsustainable materials and very short, if not single-use product obsolescence.”

And then there’s the issue of microplastics. New studies have shown that sex toys pose a risk as an overlooked source of microplastics and well, that makes total sense if you consider how many toys are manufactured using unregulated materials, and the fact that many toys are for internal use.

Tiny pieces of plastic have made their way into our water sources, our food, and the products we use on a daily basis and these plastics include harmful endocrine-disrupting chemicals. A study from Duke University and Appalachian State University in the US found that many of the sex toys they tested for microplastic particles contained levels of phthalates that exceeded the legal limits for consumer goods or that were actually banned in the European Union.

This can’t be good for the planet, or for your body. But as a consumer, how can you tell if a sex toy is actually better for you and for the environment?

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A collage of neon-lit, cyberpunk-themed illustrations showcasing various futuristic, eco-friendly sex tech gadgets with descriptive, stylized text labels.

Figuring out the sustainability of a sex toy

Firstly, you have to know what you’re looking for and materials are a good place to start. Non-virgin materials such as recycled ocean plastics are a great way to ensure a production line has sustainability at its heart and anything that uses the likes of glass, metals, and reusable plastics is easier to repurpose than, say, silicone.

Plastic-free packaging is another important indicator of sustainability and you should also look out for ‘100% vegan-friendly’ and ‘cruelty-free’ labels. But be mindful, that you should also be looking for the signs of greenwashing. A brand can easily purport to be using less packaging than it previously used and label itself as ‘eco-friendly.’ Just as we’ve seen in the fashion, beauty, and homeware sectors, greenwashing is increasing in the sextech industry.

“There are different levels of greenwashing, some more detrimental than others,” explains Ben. “An example could be a brand using an eco-friendly tone in its copy, yet sustainability is not at the heart of any process decisions. This simply misleads consumers. More concerning is where companies may make false claims regarding the products themselves, such as that something is natural, free of harmful chemicals or ‘body safe’ when it is not; the consequences of this could be catastrophic.”

Always check materials, and packaging and look for authentic indicators of sustainable and eco-friendly testing and process. Be discerning about whether a brand really donates a percentage of its profits and always shops from trusted brands – a cheap vibe from Amazon might not actually be body-safe and planet-friendly and will likely have a much higher carbon footprint if it’s being shipped from overseas.

Ultimately, sex toys last a long time, if you take good care of them. Amina from Ohhcean suggests that people own a sex toy for an average of 10-15 years, so if this is the case, it’s worth investing in something that’s made sustainably with quality materials, that offers a decent warranty and recycling or trade-in option when you’re finished with it.

You can also opt for lubes, moisturizers and sex toy cleaners made with non-toxic ingredients and recyclable packaging and shop for eco-friendly condom brands that use sustainably sourced latex, like HANX, MyBliss, and Roam.

With the sextech industry growing at the rate it has been, actionable sustainability needs to be built into any sex toy company’s core values, and not pop up as an afterthought. Because a future in which we’re swimming through oceans peppered with butt plugs and landfills are overflowing with fleshlights isn’t a heartening one.

Pleasure should be a priority, but not at the expense of screwing the planet.

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