If you're reading this blog, you probably already know what greenwashing is- false or misleading environmental claims. There are six broad categories:
- The hidden tradeoff. Marketing a product as eco-friendly based on a single green attribute, like recycled content, without addressing other issues, such as where the materials come from, or how much energy is required for production. For instance, bamboo products grow quickly and are self-propagating. However, manufacturers may obscure the harsh chemicals needed to transform raw bamboo into usable material. Dean Foods markets Horizon organic milk as better for the environment, yet their cows dine on pesticide laden, genetically modified feed. The Body Shop focuses on fair-trade, "natural" aspects of their products, which contain petrochemicals. Carbon offsets absolve purchasers of guilt, fooling some into thinking they can consume more, instead of making lifestyle changes. I bought savon de marseille because it was "local" (within 500 miles) and natural, even though it contained palm oil.
- No proof. Environmental claims without supporting evidence at the point of purchase or on the manufacturer’s website. Household lamps and bulbs may be labeled "green" without evidence or certification. Personal care products can say "no animal testing" without providing proof or verification. Paper towels and tissues claim post-consumer recycled content without evidence. Some Energy Star-rated GE appliances furnish no proof of measurable reduction. Icebreaker clothing touts sustainability without providing an annual carbon footprint or clarifying Zque ethical standards.
- Vagueness. Marketing products based on broad generalizations too vague to have any real meaning, such as "all natural," "earth friendly," or "non-toxic." The mobius loop indicates recycled material, but doesn’t show the percentage of recycled material, or where it comes from. Arsenic and formaldehyde are included in all-natural cosmetics, like nailpolish. Lush Cosmetics markets a palm oil-free soap base, but uses sulphates derived from palm oil. Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney brand themselves as sustainable designers, without publishing carbon footprints. Additionally, they use PVC, toxic additives (such as chromium in the case of Vivienne Westwood, Azo dyes and chlorophenols for both), and sweatshop labor. Update: Stella McCartney is a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative and uses Italian production facilities - which may or may not be immune from scrutiny, since some import illegal Chinese labor - for ready-to-wear / accessories and polyurethane, not PVC. According to Vivienne Westwood labels, production is in China and Turkey. "All natural" Tyson chicken sources meat from factory farms and CAFOs. "Pure and natural" Huggies diapers contain only 20% post consumer material. Food items labeled "GMO free" may require intensive petrochemical resource inputs to produce.
- Irrelevance. True claims that aren’t helpful to consumers, like CFC-free hairspray and sunscreen. Chloroflurocarbons were outlawed years ago, yet Skintimate shave gel still advertises it "contains no CFCs, which deplete the ozone layer." Bob's Red Mill sells 'aluminum-free baking soda' when baking soda doesn't contain aluminum anyway.
- Lesser of two evils. Tom's of Maine wants you to use their natural toothpaste with titanium dioxide and zinc chloride (which is corrosive by ingestion) in aluminum barrier laminate instead of plastic-free toothpaste or powder. Hemp crops are easy to grow and the deep tap root secures topsoil, but some producers and processors use heavy toxic chemicals (such as formaldehyde) to make the fabric.
- Fibbing. Some brands slap an organic label on their products without having established third-party certifications to show for it.
Why does any of this matter? It's easy to buy something- and possibly pay extra- because of misleading marketing. Look at how many people buy more expensive, energy-intensive items than they normally would, for the simple reason that they're marked "local" or "gluten-free" (not criticizing, just saying it happens. It obviously happens to me). Organic certifications in particular can be problematic thanks to regulatory loopholes. Ecocert, for instance, allows a mere 10% organic content, permitting sulfation, hydrogenation, petrochemicals, and synthetic preservatives. Soil Association is more transparent, though still permissive with petrochemicals and synthetic preservatives. USDA accreditation is costly, and some of the requirements are silly, like having a dedicated shower for the certifying agent, whom the USDA is not legally responsible for. Some of my favorite small family farmers cannot afford organic certification, yet use energy-conserving, soil-friendly, ethical growing methods, including permaculture. Further, words like "natural" are highly subjective and mean different things to different people. Lead is natural. I don't mind silicone makeup (I hate it in hair products); others do. Parabens, petrochemicals, mineral oil, fragrance, and alcohol are just some natural ingredients many eco-conscious consumers find undesirable.
Instead of relying solely on labels, think about the potentially toxic materials needed for each item, and the energy inputs required to produce it. Just because something is zero waste, organic, vegan, or local doesn't necessarily mean it's better for you and the environment. Bulk soaps, shampoos, and foods can contain palm oil, sulfates, and hydrogenated ingredients (the Skin Deep database is a particularly good resource for beauty products). Food miles are not a good indicator of carbon footprint or the overall impact of food, and depending on the crop, local foods may require more pesticides and chemicals to cultivate. Each consumer must decide what products align with their individual values. Maybe you're more concerned with endocrine disruptors and palm oil than animal testing, or vice versa. You don't have to spend all your time reading labels and doing research- I don't. My Aleppo or farmer's market soap has no certification (Alep certainly isn't local), but I know how it's made, how the employees are treated, I sometimes know the maker personally, and I like every single ingredient used. Don't be overwhelmed. The point is to be balanced and moderate when it comes to environmental responsibility, making informed choices instead of taking greenwashing claims at face value.