By Arwa Lodhi
Good news! The environmental marketing firm TerraChoice reports that products labeled “green” increased by 73% from 2009 to 2010, and that big box/mega stores offered a higher percentage (22.8%) of products with “green” labels than specialty retailers (11.5%) and green boutique stores (12.8%). Clearly, people are demanding that what they buy is kinder to the planet.
Sadly, there is bad news to match this–most ‘green’ products on the market are not actually eco-friendly at all. As a result of high consumer demand for earth-friendly products, many manufacturers have simply used marketing and packaging to mislead customers into thinking their goods are ecological. So common is this deceptive practice, a term has been coined for it: greenwashing.
Greenwashing can be hard to spot, but it’s all around us. For example, several hotel chains claim to be environmentally friendly because they allow guests to choose whether to sleep on the same sheets and use the same towels for continuous days. Not a bad idea, of course, but when it comes to behavioural adaptations that can really make a difference–using motion-sensor lighting, more efficient insulation and heating, or purchasing non-toxic carpeting and bedding, for example–these hotels all fail. McDonald’s tried to paint itself as ‘green’ lately, just because it has begun to use biofuel made from leftover grease in its fleet of trucks, and is using recycled paper in its takeaway bags. Great steps forward, of course, yet the company still uses beef grazed on deforested land in South America, and of course bases its entire concept around disposable packaging.
Even worse are beauty companies which claim to be ‘inspired by nature’ or even use the words ‘pure’, ‘herbal’, ‘bio’, ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ in their packaging, yet sell products that contain dozens of harmful synthetic chemicals, such as sodium laureth sulfate, diazolidinyl urea, fragrance and many others. In their efforts to give greenwashing the boot, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics highlights several companies as being guilty of greenwashing; however, they note that regulation on the use of words such as ‘natural’, ‘herbal’ ‘green,’ Earth’ and ‘organic’ are very loose and not stringently regulated, making greenwashing even harder to spot.
But never fear! Eluxe is here to help. Not only have we created lists of brands you think are green, but really aren’t (find them here and here), but we’ve also come up with 5 tips for ensuring you don’t get caught up in the greenwash!
Watch out for these five key greenwashing tricks:
1. The use of unsubstantiated claims
Who says a company is ‘natural’, ‘green’ or ‘organic’? Make sure that if a product makes these claims, there are no harmful chemicals hiding behind the ‘green’ ones. Vegan leather is a perfect example; although it is often promoted as being eco friendly, ‘vegan leather’ is essentially plastic by another name, and is just as harmful for the environment, if not worse, than leather production.
2. The ‘lesser of two evils’ trick
This is a fairly common one, whereby a company fools consumers into thinking it’s gone green, when it’s just slightly less harmful than it was before. Take organic cigarettes, for example: they may be made of pesticide free plants, but in this context, ‘organic’ means just slightly less deadly than regular cigarettes.
3. Unseen tradeoffs
These are particularly hard to spot. This is when companies tout the eco-friendliness of certain aspects of their products while ignoring the larger environmental cost. For example, paper that advertises itself as chlorine-free might come from virgin forests, or ‘organic cotton‘ may be shipped from tens of thousands of miles away.
4. Irrelevant claims
These are commonly made by companies to fool us into believing they’ve made an effort to be green, but they have done nothing relevant towards this. One of the worst offenders is probably beauty products that proudly declare themselves to be ‘paraben and cruelty free’–the EU has banned parabens and animal testing anyway!
5 . The use of misleading green images or names
Beware: this is probably THE most common trick! Keep an eye out for pictures of trees, leaves and other such nature scenes on labels that make no other claims to eco-friendliness. Just because there’s an animal and a bit of greenery on the label doesn’t mean the company is making the environment a priority, nor do names or labels like ‘Organix’ ‘Green’, ‘Bio’ , ‘Enviro’ or ‘Eco’ before a name or brand. Check the label!
What to Look For
The best way to know what to buy is to look for Third Party Certification. What that means is, check that the label has been certified by a recognised body that ensures a product is eco-friendly, such as:
- The Soil Association
- The Green Seal
- FSC (for paper and wood)
- LEEDS (for homes)
- The Leaping Bunny (for cosmetics)
Unfortunately, there is currently very little governmental control of misleading environmental advertising claims, but some companies, such as Dr Bronner, have shamed companies that greenwash–such as Avalon and Jason– by taking them to court over their unsubstantiated claims, and there are a number of non-profit organisations that monitor greenwashing.
We’d recommend visiting sites like www.greenwashingindex.com or www.sinsofgreenwashing.org or general advice or to check specific products–of course, the key to avoiding any sort of greenwashing is to stay informed.