"Greenwashing" refers to misleading marketing claims made by companies to falsely suggest an environmental benefit.
Most consumers aren't familiar with the term greenwashing, but examples of untrue, unverified or unsubstantiated "green" or eco claims exist in almost every category of consumer goods.
There are simple ways that savvy shoppers can protect themselves.
When it comes to what we buy, the vast majority of consumers are interested in making better, more sustainable choices for the planet. In fact, in the Good Housekeeping Institute's recent sustainability survey, only a mere 2% of respondents aren't concerned with making "green" choices at home.
The challenge is that making truly green choices can be more difficult than you might think – and it's not uncommon for brands to claim to be “green” when they aren't. You probably know the term “whitewashing,” which refers to glossing over scandalous, dangerous facts by presenting the information in a favorable way. But, you may not be as familiar with the term greenwashing. In fact, in our survey, an overwhelming 86% of readers told us they didn't know the meaning of greenwashing!
The Good Housekeeping Institute is comprised of experts across many shopping categories including textiles, cleaning, food, beauty and technology. Our Lab pros work to vet and approve items for the Green Good Housekeeping Seal, granted only to products that meet strict performance and sustainability criteria. Our sustainability experts host the Raise the Green Bar Summit each year to help companies create more sustainable products and practices too. When it comes to green claims, we're trained on how to spot greenwashing and avoid it.
So what exactly does "greenwashing" mean?
Greenwashing describes misleading marketing claims made by companies to falsely suggest an environmental benefit or promote a false image of caring for the environment. Greenwashing can include “untrue statements, lack of proof for sustainable claims, vague statements around sustainability, claiming an unqualified environmental benefit or hiding trade-offs,” says Good Housekeeping environmental consultant Michael Brown Ph.D. of Brown and Wilmanns Environmental consulting.
Why is greenwashing problematic?
Greenwashing is typically carried out through wide marketing and PR campaigns that take advantage of well-intentioned consumers looking for sustainable products. You can easily get stuck supporting brands that aren’t actually making any real environmental efforts. And many consumers find it "confusing" and "difficult" to verify sustainable claims. Greenwashing capitalizes on that confusion and makes it so that, even if you're trying to make sustainable decisions, you may not wind up supporting products or brands that align with your goals.
Is greenwashing illegal?
It's a grey area. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) exists to protect consumers by preventing "deceptive and unfair business practices through law enforcement, advocacy, and education." Going against FTC regulations is illegal, as all claims need evidence to back them up. However, greenwashing can involve vague statements and brands not disclosing certain information to make their actions seem more sustainable than they truly are — neither of which are inherently illegal today. FTC has compiled the Green Guides to help brands understand how to make legitimate environmental claims.
What are some examples of greenwashing?
According to our Lab experts, these are some common green claims to watch out for:
“All natural” anything. All of our experts agree that the term “natural” has no true definition and doesn’t tell you anything about the product. Without mentioning a specific attribute, this phrase is typically greenwashing.
“Free of-” claims. You're most likely to see "free of" on beauty, personal care or cleaning products. Using "free of" suggests to consumers that the product does not contain any amount of a harmful substance. Unless each batch is specifically tested for the substance trace amounts of the ingredient from contamination during manufacturing (or due to reactions between ingredients), it could be present. Plus, brands sometimes use this claim when the ingredient would never be in the product in the first place!
"Non-toxic" products. Non-toxic implies that the formula has no toxins whatsoever, but everything has some level of toxicity – it just depends on how much. These products still use chemicals and need to be handled with care.
"Clean" beauty. Clean alludes to products that don't contain certain ingredients that are considered controversial or unsafe like parabens. However, our beauty experts are skeptical of this new buzzword in the beauty industry, because there is no real definition or regulations on specific criteria. In truth, anything can be called “clean”— whether proven unsafe or not.
"Chemical-free" beauty products. Chemicals make up everything around us – nothing can truly be chemical free. This phrase is common with beauty products, as nobody wants to put harsh irritants on their skin. Instead of looking for “chemical-free” on beauty products, check the ingredient list and compare to the Made Safe Hazard List to learn what each ingredient really means .
"Bamboo" or "eucalyptus" bedding. While it's true that certain fibers may start with plant-based materials like bamboo or wood pulp, these raw materials go through a chemical solvent in the manufacturing process that synthetically alters them. Typically, “bamboo fibers” move through harsh chemicals to become rayon, not only eliminating the original fiber but posing a threat to the workers, wildlife and local environment. “Tree fibers” like eucalyptus are technically lyocell (sometimes under the brand Tencel), which follows a safer and more sustainable process, but is still a man-made fiber.
"Biodegradable" clothing. Although biodegradable sounds like your clothes won't just sit in landfills if you toss them, they'll actually take years to decompose and there are much better uses for unwanted items like upcycling them into new styles. Plus, "biodegradable" doesn’t mean chemicals weren't used in the dyes or finishes of the garment that may be dangerous to the earth.
"Green” fashion brands. Some brands have a "green" collection where the garments in the line have some sustainable attributes, such as using organic cotton or recycled content or less water. However, many times only a small percentage of recycled content is used or they use "green" terms without backing them up. Buying second hand clothing is always a more sustainable choice than buying something totally new.
“Hormone-free” poultry. Today, it’s illegal for pigs, chickens and bison to receive hormones according to federal law. Therefore, if these products are advertising as “hormone-free,” they’re just following the law and not doing anything more sustainable than the next brand. Look for “hormone-free” only when buying beef products, as the use of steroid hormones is still legal with sheep and cows.
"Non-GMO" food products. GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are common in food to produce larger fruit or different colored flowers. But there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs on human health. If you want to buy non-GMO food products, you’ll need to look for a third-party emblem (such as the Non-GMO Verified Project), as there are no consistent standards and testing required for a product to be labeled as non-GMO.
"Biodegradable" cleaning products. This phrase can be misleading, as it usually refers to the liquid or powder and not the actual bottle or container it’s in: It should say “biodegradable formula” to be accurate. If you're looking for a bottle that's easily recycled, look for containers made with recycled content or PET/HDPE materials.
"Conflict free" smartphones. This claim refers to when a brand says they did not buy the minerals in their products from an area in conflict. It's a claim that's nearly impossible to prove as these verifications are typically based on documentation audits of the supply chain and not necessarily actual valuations of social conditions.
How to avoid falling victim to greenwashing
Whenever you see a product that has lots of eco-friendly or sustainable claims, you should be skeptical. Birnur Aral, Ph.D., director of the Health, Beauty and Environmental Sciences Lab at the Good Housekeeping Institute, says, “if the claims of the product sound too good to be true, you are probably on to something.” Here's how to analyze products like a GH scientist, so you don't fall victim to greenwashing when shopping:
Check the label (or website) for more details. Any environmental claim on a product should be substantiated with data and specific insights. General or all-encompassing claims such as “green” don’t tell you anything specific about the product and are usually misleading. "The more specific the brand is and the less they use broad, vague or unqualified statements (e.g., Chemical free! Non-toxic! Green! Eco-friendly!), the more I trust it," says Lexie Sachs, director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Textiles Lab.
Expect transparency. If a brand is taking steps to be sustainable, they'll be happy to share specifics. Look for percentages and clear explanations for all environmental claims. For example, if the product claims to be made with recycled content, look for a specific percentage — this will let you know, potentially, if there's only a tiny amount of recycled content, which won't have a huge environmental impact. A company advertising that a product is made with recycled content may be deceptive if the environmental costs of using recycled content outweigh the environmental benefits of using it.
Look for environmental emblems from established, third-party organizations that verify brand’s claims to avoid being duped. Examples of these certifications include EnergyStar for appliances and electronics, USDA Organic for food products, and the Green Good Housekeeping Seal. Keep in mind that most certifications have specific criteria, so even if a product has a third-party emblem, it doesn't mean the product is sustainable or ethical in every way.
Buy less. Even if it’s a product with great sustainable attributes, not buying it and using something you already own is the best way to lessen your impact on the environment. All products require lots of energy and resources to develop, manufacture, and ship, so buying only what you need and creatively reusing items helps reduce your environmental footprint.
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