When you’re browsing the mall looking for an eco-friendly solution to your problem, whether it’s hunger pains or cleaning pains, be careful when a green, purportedly eco-friendly product catches your eye. As more and more people start to care about the way their shopping habits influence the environment, they are also often falling victim to efforts of “greenwashing.” In fact, a study in 2010 by TerraChoice — a North American marketing company — found that 95 percent of consumer products boasted unsubstantiated “green” claims utilizing vague or undefined marketing language or even outright lies regarding environmental claims.
Don’t get duped. Survey some examples of potential greenwashing below, then keep reading to discover five common ways that marketers often use to trick you.
- Snacks: Sunchips look natural, with their “All-Natural” label and marketing language like “Healthier for you. Healthier for the earth.” In fact, their bag claims to be 100 percent compostable in 14 weeks. Yet Consumer Reports magazine tested these composting claims and concluded that after 14 weeks, “the bag barely changed in the compost pile.” Meanwhile, Frito-Lay, the manufacturer of Sunchips, is getting sued over its all-natural ingredient claims because the lawsuit says the chips contain genetically modified ingredients.
- Meats: Hormel’s “Natural Choice” product line boasts that it’s 100% natural with no preservatives. Additionally, it wraps its interior plastic packaging in a recycled, brown paper box that feels earthy-good. While such packaging is very commendable for reducing the overall amount of plastic used (cue the applause), all is not rosy. “Natural meat” doesn’t mean much because the animal can still be legally fed substances such as antibiotics and genetically modified food. Meanwhile, the production of meat in factory farms contributes up to 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
- Cleaning Products: You’ve probably seen ads for Green Works’ cleaning products everywhere, from TV to the walls of subway stations. The ads often revolve around images of the cleaning product nestled in a flower field or in the dappled sunlight of a forest understory. But all that imagery looks good…and means nothing. Some argue that “99% naturally derived” is not the same as truly natural, and that some of its products (e.g., disposable cleaning wipes) are still encouraging a throwaway culture. To say nothing of the plastic packaging.
- Diapers: Glance at the Huggies Pure & Natural diaper box, and you’ll see leaves (lots and lots of green, green leaves!) and big words declaring benefits like “ORGANIC COTTON” and “ALOE & VITAMIN E.” While these are all pluses to an extent, they’re still disposable diapers. And no matter how many green leaves and natural-ish marketing words a company uses, disposable diapers still create problems for the environment. The University of Minnesota reports that such diapers create 7,000 percent more municipal solid waste than cloth diapers, and that while some disposable diaper manufacturers claim their products are biodegradable, “there are no established standards.”
While greenwashed products may be better than other products, they’re still not necessarily truly green. And sometimes, their greenness is outright unverifiable. When surveying an ad or product label, watch for the following tricks:
1. Imagery. Just because a Clorox ad puts a bottle of bathroom cleaner in the middle of a forest doesn’t mean it’s green. Other similar tricks include using earth- or green-toned colors (e.g., browns, greens, blues) or the use of traditionally eco-friendly design elements, such as leaves added to a logo.
2.Broad, poorly defined claims. For example, a label that blatantly says “earth-friendly” means nothing. The same goes for the ubiquitous “all-natural” label. Formaldehyde is natural…and poisonous.
3. No third-party certification, or certification by an agency or organization that’s owned by the product’s manufacturer. Even worse: seals, medals, awards or certifications by nonexistent organizations.
4. Unnecessary “ingredient-free” claims. For example, some products sport labels today that say “CFC-free,” although CFCs have been legally banned for years. Also watch for “chemical-free.” That means nothing, as everything is a chemical. Instead, it should be more specific, such as “free of synthetic chemicals.”
5. Fake organic terms. Some manufacturers boast the use of organic ingredients on the front of the label, while the back of the label reveals that the organic ingredients are few and far between many synthetic chemicals.
Bonus tip: Fair trade labels are popping up everywhere due to increased consumer awareness of manufacturing and farming practices abroad. But did you know that Transfair, a fair trade licensing organizatin, allows companies to label their product as fair trade so long as the product has as little as 2 percent fair trade content?