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Greenwashing: What it is & how to pinpoint brands that do it

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Photo credit: LightFieldStudios/Getty Images

It’s becoming increasingly apparent (I mean, our planet is literally on fire) that we need to start integrating sustainability and eco-friendly practices into our everyday lives, and businesses are jumping on the bandwagon. It seems like everyday brands are releasing “eco-friendly” products or promoting a new sustainability initiative. Some of these initiatives are important and impactful. But let’s face it, a fair amount of the initiatives you see are mostly for show without meaningful action. Enter, greenwashing.

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when a business or company shares false or misleading information about its sustainability initiatives for the sake of marketing. Sometimes this comes from a well-intentioned, albeit naive or not-well-researched, place. Other times, it’s just straight-up hyperbole. Greenwashing is the environmental equivalent of a food product saying it’s “natural” when it is full of junky ingredients. Thanks, but no thanks.

As a consumer, it’s easy to reach for the product that has “eco” on its label and call it a day. However, sustainability is complex and layered, and it’s not always easy to determine if something really is eco-friendly — even that term can mean a whole host of things! There are several factors to consider when buying a product while keeping sustainability in mind: the distance it traveled to get to you (which impacts carbon emissions), the packaging, the duration you’ll use it for, if it was produced with fair labor, materials and more. There’s often no perfect option — an eco-friendly, natural cleaning product might come in a plastic bottle that traveled across the world to get to your local shop. And did you know that leggings made of recycled water bottles release micro-plastics when washed that end up in our water supply? When it comes to sustainability, there are almost always trade-offs.

MORE: 5 recycling myths & what you should actually be doing

So where do you begin in picking something in which to invest?

First, be hesitant of any overly hyped jargon promoting a product’s eco-friendly ways. Often these brands are making much bigger claims than they are actually putting into action. From there, consider these six questions when scouting out your next purchase:

  • What materials or ingredients are involved in making this product? Plastic is typically the least desirable, especially now that most of our plastic recycling doesn’t actually end up being reused. Opt for something made of recycled plastic — which creates demand for plastic to be recycled — glass, aluminum or other natural materials such as cotton, linen and tencel. Organic is generally better as well. For food, home or beauty products, avoid synthetic ingredients and opt for an ingredient list that comes from the earth.
  • What are the company’s long-term goals in regards to sustainability? I have all too often seen companies come out with an “eco-line” or announce some small initiative in order to pat themselves on the back. A company truly committed to sustainability, though, will have a long-term plan to integrate sustainability into its entire line of offerings and often even company operations, even if it may take some time to roll out. A great example of this is Eileen Fisher’s Vision2020 program, which outlines the company’s pathway to sustainability. Company-wide change can’t always happen overnight, but a long-term plan shows this isn’t just a publicity stunt.
  • Does the product claim to be compostable or biodegradable? Unfortunately, the only way most compostable products break down is in industrial composting facilities, which are generally hard to access as a consumer. That means that this product will live the same lifespan in the landfill as its non-compostable counterparts.
  • Is the company creating more good than harm? Often companies will have a “giveback” program where a portion of sales is donated to a sustainability-focused charity. It’s important to dig a layer deeper and determine if this company is creating more harm than good. If a company donates to save the whales, but through its production creates toxic output that pollutes the ocean, that’s just greenwashing. A company dedicated to sustainability will consider all aspects of its business, not just try to offset its damage.
  • Is the company just citing basic standards? Sustainability claims like “our product lasts a long time!” “no harmful chemicals!” or “you can recycle me!” are just basic standards, not real sustainability initiatives. These companies aren’t pushing the industry forward and really upping the ante on what sustainability means in all aspects of their business.
  • Does the product have any certifications? Certifications are not the end all, be all, but they can be helpful. Fair Trade, Organic, Leaping Bunny and B Corps are all useful certifications to keep an eye out for, but keep in mind that not all of these certifications ensure a sustainable product.

The naughty list

It’s common lately to head to a store or look at a Facebook ad and see greenwashing all over the place. For example, H&M has a “conscious collection,” and has proclaimed its investment in sustainability as a company, yet it churns out fashion at a rate much faster than can be consumed. H&M touts a recycling program but isn’t transparent about the fact most clothing cannot yet be recycled due to their mixed-fiber content. And H&M ends up with billions (yes, billions!) of excess clothes per year. H&M’s business model is inherently unsustainable, so creating a single line that claims to be sustainable isn’t good enough. Same with companies such as Everlane, which touts transparency and seems to be embraced by the sustainability community but still uses conventional fabrics with no clear goal to move toward organic materials. A quick stroll down the beauty aisle at a store will show lots of products claiming to be “natural” that aren’t, or featuring product packaging with plants and/or eco-looking materials that can’t even be recycled.

MORE: Your fear of recycling is common, according to psychology

Companies who are doing it right

There are lots of ways to prioritize sustainability in your purchases. Support small, local brands where you can get to know the makers and understand their motives. Look out for brands that integrate sustainability into all aspects of their business. Buffy makes high-quality and eco-friendly bedding, supports fair wages for its employees, uses sustainable materials and even vegetable-dyes its sheets. Patagonia encourages customers to buy less and repair what they have, which is a service it offers in-shop, and is committed to sustainability across its supply chain. Opus Mind’s new product line uses up-cycled materials to create handbags in a family-owned factory, packaged in post-consumer packaging. And brands like superfood-drink Rebbl, despite being sold in plastic bottles, focuses on the sustainable sourcing of its delicate herbal ingredients, employing individuals at risk of human trafficking through its partner Not For Sale (see how the plastic bottle is not always the deciding factor?).

The takeaways

In the end, use your instincts and dig a little deeper when you see sustainability claims. Consider the entire picture of that product or brand, how its sustainability initiative fits into its larger offerings and operations, if the claim is actually eco-friendly, and if the company or product has any certifications. Always dig a layer deeper to see where things stand. Call out brands that you love that you want to do better in regards to sustainability. And cut yourself some slack — this stuff is complex, and all you can do is your best.

You don’t need to research companies to find more sustainable cleaning options. Make them yourself! We’ll show you how to make four natural cleaners in just five minutes in the video below. 

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