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How to Spot Greenwashing: a Primer on Product Labeling

If you’re someone who cares about the planet, chances are you strive to be as responsible as possible when it comes to buying products. But knowing which products on the market are safe, clean, and green can be a challenge when there are so many brands promoting sustainability without actually being sustainable. Buzzwords around environmentalism and sustainability can be exploited by corporations that want to benefit from appearing to be altruistic or eco-conscious. In some cases, the only thing being sustained is the status quo of harmful practices that help the bottom line.

If you’re wondering how to tell the difference between legitimate eco-friendly products and hypocritical companies with false claims, here’s what you need to know to avoid greenwashing. 

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a term that describes a brand or company that uses environmentally conscious jargon to sell its products without upholding the values, actions, or quality standards that align. 

The wordsmith term “greenwashing” was inspired by whitewashing, which used to be a cheap, quick fix for concealing unpleasant cracks or dirt on walls by painting them white. The term is also widely used to accuse someone of ignoring uncomfortable facts about a matter to make themselves seem more acceptable. One could also guess “greenwashing” might be subtly influenced by the word “brainwashing”, which is the act of influencing someone to change their attitudes, beliefs, or ideas by using deceptive tactics or guilt.

Why Do Companies Greenwash?

Because society is becoming more concerned with individual and collective consequences of worldwide pollution, many businesses see great benefit in capitalizing on the values of environmental care. Some businesses are making strategic changes to lower their carbon footprint, source materials responsibly, and ensure ethical labor throughout their company. Others continue to operate on the easiest path that generates the most profits, even if it means much damage is done. 

Some of the latter companies do this while claiming to be more environmentally responsible than they really are. Through using slogans, “green” campaigns, and misleading labeling, they trick consumers into buying their products. This explains the problem of greenwashing.   

The problem is real, and prevalent, but consumers aren’t powerless. In fact, the true power to resist the ploy of greenwashing lies in the hands of the consumers. Every individual’s choice to practice responsible consumerism will have a net positive impact. The compounding impact will change the way companies source, manufacture, and deliver goods. Collectively, we can make a difference.

Signs of Greenwashing on Product Labels

You want to have less of a negative impact on the environment, and it’s time to invest in products that support that goal. Here are the biggest red flags to look out for when shopping for sustainable labels.

1. Vague, Catchy Wording

The use of words like “natural”, “non-GMO”, “fair trade”, and “synthetic-free” are a red flag. These common yet vague statements on many product labels may not mean much. If a product has a variety of words like this plastered all over the packaging, look deeper. Read the fine print. Check into the company’s actual practices before taking the wording at face value.

2. Lack of Sustainability Proof 

Many brands claim sustainability but can’t prove the impact their products actually have. If their packaging claims they use ingredients that help the planet but the actual ingredients are harmful, that’s a problem. At the end of the day, companies should state and then prove how they are actually fulfilling their claims about sustainability.

3. The Appealing “No” List

Go to any convenience store and browse the hair care aisle: you’ll likely be bombarded with dozens of shampoo and conditioner bottles that highlight, “No sulfates, No parabens, No animal testing.” While that’s appealing, unclean ingredients can still hide in the actual label. For example, there are many alternative terms for sulfates — such as sodium lauryl sulfonate — that can technically make the shampoo sulfate-free in terminology but not at all in chemistry. It’s also easy to forget that textiles can be plastic, which shows up when the label list has “polyethylene” or “nylon.” The labeling is really just marketing, and sometimes that marketing is really meant to trick the consumer. You need to be careful not to fall for it.

4. Too Many Confusing Ingredients 

Is the ingredient list or contents a paragraph of long, confusing words you can’t understand or even pronounce? This is a sign the product you’re looking at isn’t quite as clean as it appears. If your goal in product-buying is to keep it clean, then focus on keeping it simple. It’s important to note that some companies, especially those that sell textile goods, can trademark a fabric to make it sound less synthetic. An example of this is the company Lululemon, which uses the term “luon” to describe it’s “cottony soft performance fabric.” In fact, “luon” is 87% nylon. Choose products that have ingredients you can read and make sense of.

5. Unrealistic Shelf Life

Organic ingredients for beauty, personal care, and food items will naturally expire faster than those with preservatives or harsher synthetics. If a label claims that a product is organic or all-natural but has an expiration date of five to 10 years, you might want to use your best judgment on how those ingredients will actually manage to last that long. 

6. Price Tag is Too Good to Be True

It’s no secret that intentionally greener and cleaner products require a slightly higher price tag. This is because trustworthy certifications, better quality ingredients, and responsible sourcing all cost money. All the details that go into making the product add up to the price you pay for it. If you think a product seems too good to be true for its price, you might be right! If it’s truly 100% organic, responsibly farmed cotton from your local farmers, it probably won’t be a few bucks. This doesn’t mean you must always spend outside your means, but be aware of the differences.

7. Minimal Company Involvement

Research the company for what it is. Does it involve itself in causes and activities you care about? What does it do with its profits? Or is it impossible to learn about any type of involvement it’s engaged in (perhaps because it doesn’t exist)? So many brands are all for show, with nothing to show for it. If a product is sold using ethical, sustainable buzzwords but the company doesn’t do anything whatsoever, it might not be an environmentally conscious choice. 

Learning How to Avoid Greenwash Products

It’s important to realize that no company is perfect in having a positive impact on the environment. To create something, resources must always be obtained from somewhere — that’s a law of nature. What you want to focus on when avoiding greenwashing is finding brands that are honest and doing their best. Transparency is the hallmark of a good brand working to improve its practices. You want to support brands within your budget that use the best practices they can, and can prove it.

Next time you go shopping with sustainability in mind, use the following action points to avoid tricky labels.

Don’t Let the Packaging Fool You

Don’t judge a product by its packaging. Maybe it looks decent, but keep in mind the immediate point of nice packaging is to attract interest. We all love a good product label. But don’t forget to learn about the details of the actual product. 

Read Labels and Ingredients Lists

Get skilled at reading and deciphering the labels. This can feel overwhelming at first, and it takes practice. Start with what you know and let yourself make better decisions over time, as you learn more. Whether it’s food, skincare, or cleaning products, if you want to know what you’re truly going to be consuming and using, you have to read about it.

Look for Symbols, Seals, and Verifications

These days, there are so many symbols and seals of approval on product labels. There are a few certified labels that can tell you a product is on the right track: USDA Organic, Fairtrade Foundation, the “Leaping Bunny”, and more. But there are also fake symbols that make a product look verified when it’s really just a made-up stamp someone slaps on a label.

Research Brands and Products Before You Shop

Lastly, one of the best ways to ensure you’re making better product decisions is to do some research before you shop. It’s easy to get decision fatigue and simply grab the cheapest “green” product on the shelf at a store. But if you research what you need beforehand, you might find a better option from a company you trust. 

You can also talk to small business owners or sellers at local markets about what they put in their products. This is a great way to gauge whether you want to opt for buying more locally and sustainably, which can have a lower impact. If you don’t have access to local suppliers, you can always shop online — you’ll likely find brands that you fully support but that can’t be bought in-store near you.

Choosing Sustainable Solutions

Becoming aware of greenwashing will equip you to make more sustainable purchases. Small changes over time can result in solutions that impact the world we live in. At FiveADRIFT, we strive to do this by cleaning the oceans and giving back to organizations that help our seas become plastic-free. 

To start your sustainable product switch, purchase one of our eco-friendly towels today. With your purchase, you’ll help remove 75 plastic bottles from the ocean. Check out our new product line to make a purchase toward a positive impact you can see, feel, and trust.

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