Avoiding the Greenwash

By | Posted April 9th, 2013

When it comes to smart purchases, “caveat emptor” (“let the buyer beware”) is as relevant today as it was in ancient Rome. New product standards are being laid down by the law and social action, and companies have come to embrace the true value of “green.” Yet, how do we know a product is true to its word? Is some wiley brand trying to pull the moss over our eyes?

What to Watch Out For

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines concerning green marketing leave some wiggle room for marketers, so it is truly up to the consumer to find the real environmentally-friendly products.

Packaging

You may have noticed that companies are using eye-grabbing packaging less often. They are instead opting for natural tones and an organic feel. Just because it looks green, doesn’t mean it is green. Check the label, look at the brand’s product page, and find out what you’re buying.

Labels, Seals, and Statements

As creative as packaging can get, the statements made on a product can be just as grandiose. If a label is making wild claims, like, “reduces carbon emissions by 50%,” or, “fights global warming,” you want to double check their claims.

Laid down by the environmental marketing firm, UL TerraChoice, the “Sins of Greenwashing” include: blatant lies about a product; a hidden trade-off; irrelevant or vague claims; no proof; using a green gimmick to distract from a larger problem; and giving a consumer the impression of a third-party endorsement.

When double checking a “green” product, ask:

  1. Do they have independent research?
  2. Does the brand provide information on their materials and their processes?
  3. Are they certified by a third-party organization? Is that third-party organization a real one?
  4. If a product claims to be “free of” a given substance, what is the substance in question? Why is harmful? Is it banned or restricted in production already?
  5. Pay close attention to buzzwords. Words like “eco-safe,” “biocompatible,” “biodegradable,” “all-natural,” and “organic” can miss the green mark.
  6. Does the company have a section on their website dedicated to environmental action? How does it look? Was it updated recently?
  7. Has the company been mentioned in environmental news lately?

This may take a little longer than going in and just buying a product, but it sure beats getting duped. Outdated “green” pages on a brand’s website might indicate environmental apathy. If you can’t find the information online, try calling the manufacturer. Companies who are tight-lipped with information may be hiding something. The news (or trustworthy blogs) can also point to a nasty picture behind the clean, green product dream.

Consumer Reports has a handy index for labels, certifications, and buzzwords used on green products and whether or not they mean anything.

Further Product-Specific Resources

Cosmetics

Checking out your cosmetics gets tricky. The FDA does not approve cosmetics before they hit the market—save for color additives. The companies are legally responsible for the safety of the materials they use, although federal regulations ban some materials.

For untested products, warning labels are supposed to appear “prominently and conspicuously… in bold type of contrasting background… but in no case may the letters and/or numbers be less than 1/16 inch in height… [unless the] label of any cosmetic package is too small.”

The next time you feel like you need to double check your products, or you find you’re allergic to something, head over to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep® database. Hosting more than 78,800 products in an easy-to-read format, Skin Deep allows you to search by specific product, brand, or chemical.

Food

If you browsed the Consumer Reports claims index above, you might have noticed a couple of things: terms like “100% Vegan,” “free range,” “hormone free,” and “natural” mean little or nothing.

For lovers of pork, chicken, lamb, turkey, and beef, EWG and CleanMetrics created a guide on how the meat you eat impacts your family and the environment. Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health provides a helpful breakdown of what “cage-free,” “grass-fed,” and other terms really mean, as well as the carbon emissions associated with specific sections of the meat industry. They won’t try to make you into a vegetarian, but they will educate you on the impact meat has on the climate and your health.

A more general guide to pesticides in common fruits and vegetables is also provided by EWG. Their Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce analyzes 60,700 samples taken from 45 popular fruits and vegetables by USDA and FDA. They rank produce from dirtiest to cleanest.

Home Products and Cleaners

Like cosmetics, there is no approval process from home cleaners, nor do federal regulations require complete disclosure of materials. Hazardous substances, though, are required to be disclosed according to the Federal Hazardous Substances Act. Pressure from consumers has led some manufacturers to release all the materials they use, but some have not. Make sure you check all warnings and chemicals before buying a product.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will give you a rundown on common products in their Household Products Database. While incomplete, the list will let you know the materials listed by the manufacturer, safety, and health alerts. Keep in mind the chemicals listed are only the ones the company has chosen to disclose.

EWG also saves you from legwork. In a much smaller (but still growing) database of 2,000 products, their Guide to Healthy Cleaning will answer some of your burning questions about detergents, dish soaps, and cleaners. They also note environmental hazards when grading products.

Cars

Plenty of cars are touting great gas mileage and environmentally-friendly features. But, in some cases, you need to look at the trade-off that supposedly “green” cars take to earn that label. In this case, it’s paying attention to ongoing research instead of a database or product label.

In the Journal of Industrial Ecology, a group of scientists published life cycle assessment research which busted a lot of green bubbles. Since they hit the market, electric vehicles (EVs) have been plugged as the environmental savior from oil and carbon emissions. When you get down to the business of actually producing EVs, things get tricky: Evidence suggests that EVs may significantly increase instances of human toxicity, freshwater toxicity and oxygen depletion, as well as depletion of scarce metals.

Nearly half of the global warming potential of an EV happens before it’s even sold. Carbon emissions from production are twice that of cars with internal combustion engines. And, after production, the question of where the electricity comes from affects an EV’s impact. If the car charges on electricity from fossil fuels or coal, charging the vehicle completely negates its environmental benefits.

The moral of the story? Just because it looks green and talks green doesn’t mean it is.

Gas

Despite being oxymoronic, eco-friendly gas—especially biofuel—is now a staple at the pump. Ethanol, an alternative fuel source the government is pouring money into, is a large part of the debate concerning cleaner fuel sources.

Is it a greenwash? The fuel economy of E10, or a blend of 10% ethanol and 90% gas, will take 3-4% off your average miles per gallon (MPG). For a 32 MPG car, that’s a 0.96-1.28 MPG loss. E85, a blend of 85% ethanol and %15 gas, will take 25-30%—or 8-9.6 MPG—off your car’s fuel economy. Of course, E85 can only be used in flexible fuel vehicles.

The question of whether or not ethanol reduces carbon emissions is heatedly debated as well. However, about 90% of gas sold in the U.S. is E10, so you might not have much of a choice.

Do Your Research

The only way to be a truly green customer is to keep an eye out for fishy tactics and fact-check everything. Take a look at some research online (it’s not as boring as it sounds). In some cases, even checking governmental or organizational decisions may be worth your while.

Environmentally-friendly product standards are filled with loose language and are often based on ongoing research. If you’re really looking to boost your green karma, arm yourself with knowledge before you buy.