Over my adult life, and in particular the last two-plus years, I have been working to “green “my lifestyle. I have begun transitioning to more clean beauty brands, I’ve used more sustainable cleaning products at home, and I’ve worked to reduce my consumption of energy while increasing my recycling and composting efforts. Many of my friends have also taken on greening their lifestyles, and we’ve shared experiences, best practices, and tools to make transitioning simpler.
You can check out these posts to read a sampling of what I’ve written about how I’m transitioning to a greener lifestyle:
- How I’m Transitioning to Using Only Natural Beauty Products
- 9 Things I Learned from Completing an Armpit Detox
- My Top 5 Must-Have Items from Grove Collaborative
- Follain on the Brain
- An Earth Day Challenge
- Prana Cozy Gear is Everything
What is Greenwashing?
According to the Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, greenwashing is, “expressions of environmentalist concerns, especially as a cover for products, policies, or activities.” The financial definition in the same Dictionary states, “greenwashing is the act of misleading customers and potential customers into believing that a product or service is environmentally friendly.” This deceptive advertising is very troubling, and once you start to notice it, you’ll start to see it everywhere!
Still not understanding how greenwashing exist out in the world? Here’s an anecdote from Grace Avila Casanova, international development and business sustainability strategy expert for Impacto International:
A few months ago, when working on a strategy for a well-known fashion retailer, I came across a series of press releases on how the brand was now “going green” because they “cared.” Curious to find out [what that meant], I asked the marketing manager what these initiatives were all about. She said to me, “well… we have just launched a sustainable collection and will be compensating our emissions by donating to an organization that runs reforestation projects.”
What’s essentially problematic about this approach is that they chose to brand their latest collection “sustainable” because it was all made of recycled polyester … and had an earthy colour palette. Offsetting the emissions for delivery and returns wasn´t a decision made in favour of the environment but in favour of greater sales. It is a strategy designed to counteract the rise of climate change activism and travel quotas around the world.
Are There Rules Around What Companies Can and Cannot Say in their Advertising?
- the product doesn’t have more than trace amounts or background levels of a substance;
- the amount of substance present doesn’t cause harm that consumers typically associate with the substance; and
- the substance wasn’t added to the product intentionally
Does that make you feel more or less confident in products claiming to be free of certain substances??
How Can You Avoid Falling into this Marketing Trap? How Can You Double-Check the Products You Already Own?
One suggestion is to use an app to scan and search for products while you’re shopping. Two apps that I recommend are the Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s Healthy Living App and the Think Dirty App if you’re looking at food, personal care, and beauty products.
Another option is to check out the seals that are on the product or to visit the company’s corporate social responsibility page (if they have one!).
I reached out to some experts on sustainability and corporate social responsibility to share their tips.
Valerie Salinas-Davis, a sustainability consultant and author of the upcoming book, Green-ish: How to Protect the Environment Without Hugging a Tree, has a number of questions to ask yourself when you see a brand making eco-friendly claims. She suggests asking the following:
- Does the ad mislead with words?
- How about with visuals and graphics?
- Is the ad vague or seemingly unprovable?
- Does it exaggerate how “green” the product/company/service actually is?
- Is the ad leaving out or masking important information, making the claim seem better than it actually is?
To be clear: Not all of the brands you’re currently using are greenwashing. You may actually be surprised which brands you’re loyal to that are also loyal to the environment!
Avila Casanova recommends making a list of the different brands you regularly use, and measuring their sustainability claims against these three qualifications:
- They work under a clear and unique definition of sustainability. “This is key because every single brand needs and must have a unique framework to inform their everyday operations, revenue model and supply chain,” says Avila Casanova. “If they have a generalist approach to it, it is likely they are not walking the walk.”
- They use ethical marketing techniques. According to Avila Casanova, “a truly sustainably-driven brand would never encourage consumerism. They would encourage meaningful purchases, beyond the feel-good factor.” She also recommends that consumers looking for ethical brands should, “stay away from brands that use coercive incentives such as creating false scarcity and highlighting the potential consequences of not buying their product. Beware of buy-one-give-one (BOGO) offers, particularly those that are product-based. The BOGO model tends to encourage conscious consumerism and falls short on impact strategy.”
- They are transparent. “If they’re serious about sustainability it should be easy to find their latest sustainability report online,” says Avila Casanova. “The report should be comprehensive and structured under GRI guidelines, covering impact measurement and evaluation; and a detailed outline of how they intend to improve their sustainability performance in the upcoming year.”
Tyler Butler, Founder & CEO of 11Eleven Consulting, emphasizes that reading the label is one of your most powerful tools when it comes to spotting greenwashing:
When making purchases, consider a few things that can serve as indicators of greenwashing. Examine the product and how it is claiming to be green. Ask for and look for proof of the product’s claims. Perhaps the product’s website has details or there is a third-party certification. Take time to investigate and research such claims. Ignore all green imagery, “eco” terminology on the packaging and only pay attention to facts, labels and specs. And trust your instincts. You must be intellectually curious to some extent to truly question what products pass the greenwashing test and which ones are simply under the facade of being green.
Similarly, Stephanie Seferian, host of The Sustainable Minimalists Podcast*, recommends three simple practices for avoiding the purchase of greenwashed products:
- Avoid cutesy imagery. Just because a brand has pictures of baby seals on it doesn’t mean that they’re actually doing anything to protect baby seals. The use of animals on the packaging is a very common trend in greenwashing labels!
- Call out “fluffy” language. Sefarian shares these words to the wise: “Eco-friendly, certified, non-toxic, pure, Earth-friendly, and natural are just some product descriptors corporations use to sell products. The reality is, however, that these descriptors mean nothing. If there is neither certification from a reputable 3rd party agency nor supporting information to explain how a product adheres to its claims, the product has been greenwashed. Consumers can double-check green claims by heading to the corporation’s website: if there is a lot of ambiguity, it is safe to assume the product in question is not all that eco-friendly.”
- Spot the overemphasis of a relatively minor green practice. Sefarian gives the example of a sneaker manufacturer over-selling their sneaker recycling program. “Although the company mentions its (eco-friendly) recycling program at every opportunity, the company uses its recycling program as a guise because their factories continue to pollute the streams surrounding their factories,” she shared. “They are emphasizing one green aspect and ignoring their more significant non-green practices.” I’m sure you’re now thinking of some other examples of this that you’ve witnessed in your own life!
What are Some Trustworthy Certifying Agencies?
This can be very tricky to navigate, particularly if you’re looking to Federal Agencies in the United States to do all of the regulating and certifying.
U.S. Federal Government Agencies
- The FTC does not appear to endorse specific green certifications and seals, but it does issue guidance on those that do not appear to be reputable. There are rules around certifications and seals, but I was unable to identify the specific businesses that were issued warning letters, as the FTC specifically noted that they are not disclosing the names of those companies!
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has some recommendations for ecolabels when it comes to federal procurement, as well as labels and logos from various EPA-related programs.
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Agricultural Marketing Service provides organic certification and accreditation. The USDA also offers a USDA Certified Biobased Product label, which you can learn more about on their website.
3rd Party Certifying Agencies and Organizations
Greening your lifestyle is a journey with twists and turns.
Sometimes, you might get it wrong. Don’t beat yourself up!
Technology is your friend!
Not all brands are trying to deceive you!
Avila Casanova shares this advice: “Some brands might be greenwashing their products without even noticing. Supporting genuinely sustainable brands is important because in doing so we will be fostering a shift where sustainable is the new business imperative.”
Demand action from policymakers and companies!