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So You Want to Start Going Green

photo of the Malibu shoreline in California

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:

Now, let’s talk about a serious challenge for people who are looking to buy products from brands that support sustainability efforts: Greenwashing.

What is Greenwashing?

Malibu shoreline

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!

As the general public worries more and more about climate change, it seems that brands ramp up their greenwashing more and more aggressively. Environmentally unfriendly brands using the words “green” and “natural” in their labels and product titles seem to be commonplace, and all of the leaves and grass and green and brown packaging can make it very hard to decipher who is actually walking the walk on sustainability. 
Here’s a shocking statement: In 2010, this Sins of Greenwashing report stated that some 95% of products claiming to be environmentally friendly were practicing greenwashing! 😲

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.

So you want to start going green?

Are There Rules Around What Companies Can and Cannot Say in their Advertising?

This is the most concerning part to me, to be frank. In looking at U.S. federal regulations, there appears to be more flexibility for marketing than I hoped. For example, in their Green Guides summary, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) allows marketers to use a “free-of” claim for their product that contains a certain amount of a substance that it claims to be free of under the following circumstances:

  1. the product doesn’t have more than trace amounts or background levels of a substance;
  2. the amount of substance present doesn’t cause harm that consumers typically associate with the substance; and
  3. 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?

photo of the Santa Monica Mountains in Southern California

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:

  1. Does the ad mislead with words?
  2. How about with visuals and graphics?
  3. Is the ad vague or seemingly unprovable? 
  4. Does it exaggerate how “green” the product/company/service actually is?
  5. 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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.”
  3. 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! 
Just a word of advice from yours truly: Just because a brand has green in their logo or on their label doesn’t mean that they’re actually “green.” As the experts have shared, make sure you do your due diligence and don’t take everything at face value or based on assumptions. The internet is your friend!
*Side note: “Your Conclusive Clean Beauty Guide” is a fantastic episode!

What are Some Trustworthy Certifying Agencies?


photo from the peak of the Sugarloaf Mountains in Maryland

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

3rd Party Certifying Agencies and Organizations

There are a number of reputable agencies and organizations that provide certifications and accreditations to companies. Below, I have compiled a  list with a sampling from various industries. These are not the only certifications, but these will give you a good idea of some 3rd party organizations that certify.

So you want to start going green?

Key Takeaways

I’ve learned a lot on my own green living journey, and I continue to learn every day. It can seem overwhelming or discouraging, but I want you to know that it is not unreasonable to start your “going green” today! Here are some of my key takeaways on the topic of greenwashing and beginning your green lifestyle journey:

Greening your lifestyle is a journey with twists and turns.

You’re not going to learn everything there is to know about green living overnight. It takes time, dedication, and a little intellectual curiosity. Brands are not making it easier for us, either!

black woman hiking the Appalachian Trail in Frederick, Maryland

Sometimes, you might get it wrong. Don’t beat yourself up!

Just recently, I discovered that I’d been bamboozled with greenwashing wizardry from a skincare line. They had me fooled! Instead of beating myself up about it, I decided to educate myself more. Trial and error, folks. And if you are an expert on environmental sustainability or the Sherlock Holmes of uncovering greenwashing practices, that doesn’t mean that you get to shame others who are learning. Help provide information to your colleagues and loved ones in a constructive way. We’re all in this together!  

Technology is your friend!

Doing your research and finding high-quality apps and tools that can take a lot of the difficulty out of shopping are essential actions. When you’re conducting research, make sure that you look at scholarly, peer-reviewed articles and papers. There are a lot of buzzwords and claims out there that aren’t verified by legitimate studies. Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and get to typing!

Not all brands are trying to deceive you!

the Potomac River along the Billy Goat Trail in Maryland

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!

See an issue with how the U.S. Government handles certain regulations? Write a letter to your Congressional Representative! Concerned about how your state or local government is handling environmental policy? They should be hearing from you too! I spent a decade working for legislators at the federal, state, and local levels of government, and I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that they hear from you. Your voice matters!
If you’re in another country, explore the regulatory processes in your country/region. Regardless of where you live, consider volunteering with organizations that are working on sustainability issues.
Keep in mind that it’s not enough to just hold the legislators accountable; businesses should be hearing from you as well! They care about their bottom line! While many are utilizing greenwashing techniques to bamboozle consumers, not all brands are operating in bad faith. Share your concerns! Leave reviews on products you’ve purchased. Ask questions on their Amazon product pages. Be heard!
Sefarian shared, “while it is fantastic that corporations are listening to consumer demand for environmentally friendly products, we as consumers must avoid greenwashing while also demanding that companies actually incorporate sustainability into their mission statements.”
/rant as I step off my soapbox. 😃

Final Thoughts

Thank you for taking the time to read this mega-post! You can be on the lookout for more green living posts in the near future. 
This is going to be an ever-evolving post, I’m sure. If you have any additional sources you would like me to include, please feel free to send me an email or leave a comment on this post. If there’s a topic you’re particularly interested in learning about or sharing your expertise in, please let me know!
Want to continue reading about this topic? Here are some other good reads:

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