Have you ever been fooled by Greenwashing? Have you ever even heard of greenwashing before?
Since becoming really interested in the health effects of certain substances used in food and body products, I’ve become more and more aware of the deceptive labeling many companies utilize to fool consumers. The move toward protecting our bodies and the environment is being hijacked by corporations to make a quick buck.
Meanwhile, they undermine the movement with unsustainable practices, whilst taking money from those who want to protect the planet. They use many tricks including confusing terminology like “biodegradable” and words that have strong meaning for consumers like “natural” “good” “pure” to hide the nasty ingredients in fine-print on the back.
With these labeling tricks they inflate the price of still-toxic products to make more money for themselves. Here’s a guide to understanding and identifying greenwashing, and all the reasons such products should be avoided.
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is when companies try to give the impression of being environmentally friendly, sustainable or taking action on environmental issues, while continuing the same wasteful, unsustainable business model. Many times you may see certain things mentioned prominently or presented in a way which is confusing or deceptive, to make you believe the product is eco-friendly, free from toxic substances or the like.
I see greenwashing a lot with personal care and beauty products. Soaps, and shampoos branded with names like ‘only good’ or using friendly words like ‘pure’ ‘natural’ and so on. They will also use the green or earthy colors associated with sustainable or eco-friendly brands, but the back of the package tells a different story.
I picked up a bar of soap in Coles yesterday. The packaging read ‘pure soap’ but when I turned it over… well, there’s a lot of other things in there aside from soap, including ‘fragrance’ which can be used to conceal hundreds of chemicals, titanium dioxide, tetrasodium EDTA and more I could neither pronounce nor remember.
None of these ingredients are actually necessary. Soap has been made for hundreds, if not thousands of years by reacting a fat (like olive oil, coconut oil etc) with caustic soda. The end result is soap, why do we need all this other crap in there? We don’t, but since companies like to extract the glycerin from soap to sell for use in explosives, they need to chemically engineer a way for the soap to be moisturizing again.
No-one would willingly apply all these needless chemicals to their skin if they knew their effects. So, these companies rely on green-washing to deceive people, particularly those who are time-poor and don’t have the time to investigate all these mysterious chemicals or to even read the back of the package during their shop. So, these people will end up paying $4 for a bar of soap that appears safe and environmentally friendly when in fact its not much better than the pack of 5 bars costing $2 that will also last longer.
That’s why greenwashing is proving profitable for many companies. Selling the same product in a smaller size/quantity for a higher price = more profit.
Different products will greenwash in different ways. Some expensive brands of disposable diapers claim to be biodegradable. What good is this? More micro-plastic pollution, but the image this term conjures up is more like being compostable, which is something different. Biodegradable really just means it breaks down into smaller pieces of plastic. Use cloth diapers and if you need disposables for whatever reason do yourself a favor and buy the cheapest disposables available – biodegradable diapers are in no way superior to ordinary disposables.
Why you should avoid greenwashed products
Firstly, they’re a waste of money.
They are not making any difference for the environment.
They often contain toxic or harmful substances
Biodegradable plastics are adding to micro-plastic pollution. Biodegradable does not mean compostable.
There are usually cheaper and better alternatives – remember greenwashing is nothing but a money grab, companies that really care about the environment will make their products affordable. You can get good soaps for less at health food stores, such as Castille or African Black Soap, and bar soaps without harmful ingredients.
Things to look out for
Words and packaging that appear friendly and safe but mean nothing in labeling laws (‘natural’) or using wording in a way which makes it meaningless ‘eg with pure shea butter’. Sooo, the shea butter is pure, but it’s mixed in with hundreds of toxic craps, so why should I care about it’s purity before being put in the product? Another example courtesy of Palmolive ‘with extracts of 100% natural origin’ incredibly redundant because olive extract always comes from olives anyway, and again the product is full of petrochemicals soooo? Sometimes there can be words in the brand name or branding which give false impressions of the actual product ‘only good’ ‘naturals’ etc, so be careful of that too. Be suspicious of greens and earthy colors especially when you see them in supermarkets or department stores which don’t care much for sustainability.
Ommissions. This is common on food packaging. ‘No artificial colors’ but if it doesn’t also say anything about flavors or preservatives you can bet they’re present and artificial. Many companies will change one thing like this just so they can make such a claim on the front of their package to get attention, this doesn’t make the food safe. Always check ingredients.
Any fabric labelled like ‘cotton blend’ ‘wool blend’ or ‘cotton rich’ will have synthetics which they avoid mentioning up-front by using ‘blend’ or ‘rich’ (learn about safe, nontoxic fibers here). Kitchen pans made of aluminum will avoid mentioning this material if possible by using ‘anodized’ instead and drawing your attention to the stainless steel handle (check out my article on safe cookware here).
Remember, companies will always make anything good about their product prominent and visible. If they make any information hard to find, it’s not a good sign.
Misleading Claims. Watch out for food products screaming ‘no MSG’ on the front and check the back for other flavor enhancers. Many of them contain natural sources of MSG such as yeast extract, in addition other flavor enhancers. These additional flavor enhancers make the MSG even more effective.
Inaction on issues. Often used in campaigning to give an image of a company that cares about the environment. Action on environmental issues will generally be minimal in response to legislation or promised but never delivered.
For example, Australia recently banned single-use plastic bags, which is good, if inconvenient for the consumer. However, Coles and Woolworths continue to offer over-packaged products including plastic wrapped fruit and veg. The replacement for single-use bags? Thicker bags with more plastic, which you also now need to pay for. Their response? ‘you can bring soft plastics back to the store for recycling’ and ‘hard plastics are recyclable’.
Okay, so why not continue offering single use bags if they can already be recycled at the store?? What about most plastic not actually getting recycled in spite of being correctly sorted and collected?? Plastic produce bags still offered?? Why are apples and bananas coming in plastic packaging? Why do I need to peel through 2-3 layers of plastic to get to my biscuits? Strawberries and blueberries are still being sold in tiny plastic punnets?? If we did not have people needlessly putting fruit into packaging we wouldn’t have the ‘needles in strawberries’ issue. They could also be sold cheaper without the unnecessary labor cost.
What kind of insane world do we live in? Greenwashing corporations will shift cost and inconvenience onto the consumer for any action they actually take. They avoid implementing easy and logical solutions. They will not inconvenience themselves or risk any losses in profits. After the introduction of the ban, bin liner sales went up. Many used the bags for bin liners before discarding them. So the plastic waste has just been replaced. The only winner is the supermarket’s profit margin. The biggest losers are consumers bank balance and the environment.
There’s plenty of things supermarkets can do to reduce plastic waste but they won’t.
No organic certification. Mainly a problem in the USA, where products can be labelled as organic without certification. In Australia, it’s illegal to use organic on the label without being certified. However, many products will still use other terms to give themselves an eco-friendly image.
Had you heard of greenwashing before now? What’s your opinion on the topic? Let me know in the comments.