Don’t fall for greenwashing.
“Green.” “Natural.” “Organic.”
These words likely mean something to you. But do they actually mean anything when you see them on a product?
You might be surprised to learn that many of the supposedly eco-friendly labels that you see on cleaning supplies, home goods, and clothes don’t actually have a definition.
This makes it hard to know what exactly you’re getting.
Greenwashing is the increasingly common practice of using green language without the actual commitment to sustainability.
There is a silver lining though. “If there is a good thing about greenwashing, it’s that sustainability-minded consumers are now in the foreground. They’re no longer considered fringy,” explains Ashlee Piper, author of Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet.
With food, the term “organic” is more clearly defined: The United States Department of Agriculture requires food to contain 95% or more organic ingredients, meaning no chemicals or manufactured substances.
Other products: not so much. There is no set regulatory standard for defining “organic” clothes, cleaning supplies, cosmetics, and other goods. Much of this is regulated by the FDA, which has no definition for “organic.”
Look for third-party certifications that have a clear definition for “organic,” such as the Global Organic Textile Standard. Otherwise, the label likely means nothing.
America’s recycling system is a mess; confusing labels abound. But one big problem is misleading labels that make it next to impossible to ensure recyclable products are actually reused.
Greenpeace found that most products labeled as “recyclable” end up in a landfill anyway.
While the primary packaging might be made of recyclable material, other parts contaminate it. Cups, lids, trays, and even labels that are not recyclable but are attached to the recyclable product make the whole thing trash.
Perhaps the broadest label of all, “green” is all marketing. As the Stanford Social Innovation Review says, “there is no such thing as a green product.” The term green is a vibe, not a standard.
A better term — though one that has not caught on much yet — is “net green.” This takes into account the life cycle of a product to measure its true impact. If a product’s life cycle has a lower impact than a set standard, it is considered “net green.”
Another popular term among products marketed to the sustainability-minded is “natural.” There is no formal definition for this term either.
The FDA considers “natural” to mean nothing artificial or synthetic has been added, but it does not regulate this term. It offers guidance, but little in terms of enforcement.
Unfortunately, consumers believe “natural” to have lots of meaningful definitions, including being produced without the use of synthetics or artificial ingredients. Companies may set their own standard for using this label, but there is no formal standard for it.
“Eco-friendly” is another term with a clear meaning in the minds of consumers but no formal definition.
Eco-friendly is particularly tricky because it’s difficult to know what it refers to. The product inside a bottle may be eco-friendly (in this case, meaning it doesn’t harm the environment). But the bottle it comes in might not be.
With so many terms that are ultimately meaningless, what can you trust? Piper suggests a few:
ECOCERT Ecocert is an organic certification organization founded in France that vets and certifies products. Standards are published on the organization’s site, so you can see exactly what the certification means.
B Corp B Corp is less about the individual product and more about the company. B Corp certification is granted to companies that meet specific standards for social and environmental performance.
Leaping Bunny While it’s technically not a sustainability certification, Piper notes that cruelty-free standards are often quite strict, so sustainable practices are more common.
Piper says one way to make sure you know exactly what you’re getting is to make it yourself.
This is easier said than done with some products, but “making your own cleaners is easy and pretty inexpensive,” Piper says.
There are guides to make all sorts of environmentally friendly products, from cleaners to shampoos.
Piper says that big corporations often create “sustainable” branded lines of products to cash in, but don’t operate with the good of the planet in mind. “Your money is still going to a parent company that really doesn’t give a rip at all. They’re just developing products for sustainable consumers, because we’re a powerful consumer group.”
She suggests looking into smaller companies that have started with the goal of being sustainable because they tend to be more transparent.
She recommends brands like Dropps and Seventh Generation, both of which score highly in third-party reviews and audits.
Overall, focus on minimizing the impact of the products you buy — including buying less, when possible. Shop small, and support companies that make claims to sustainability that you can actually verify. Don’t fall for brands cashing in on buzzwords, and search out certifications that you can trust.
As demand grows for sustainable goods, more options will arrive. Some will be good, and some will be bullshit. Be a discerning consumer.