How to Avoid Greenwashing: 7 tips every health-conscious shopper needs to know

03 April 2018

Most people have heard of the term ‘greenwashing’ - when companies try to make their products or practices appear more environmentally-friendly or natural than they really are.

The concept was my inspiration for coining the matching term ‘fluffywashing’ in my last article. Companies also see the benefit in making themselves look more animal-friendly. This is a newer concept because the growth in demand for cruelty-free products has really only recently been enjoying big advancements.

But greenwashing of skincare and cosmetics has a longer history, and it is probably safe to say that most people are somewhat aware of its existence.

Then again...

...do they really know the extent of the problem?

...can they recognise techniques companies use to make their products appear greener?

In other words, do they really know how to avoid greenwashing, or are they being fooled?

Make sure you’re not one of them.


Are you familiar with all the tactics skincare companies use to greenwash their products? Use these 7 tips to make sure you aren't fooled!

Why do companies greenwash?

Greenwashing is plain and simple a good business decision.

It’s painful to say, but it’s true.

Companies who value transparency do better at establishing meaningful consumer trust. This should count for something. And when consumers are discerning shoppers, it usually does.

But the truth is: the nice guys usually finish last.

Why?

Because the dishonest companies get away with it. Most companies who greenwash are simply not held accountable.

They gain extra profits from convincing consumers to make the purchase thanks to their greenwashing claims. The growing consumer demand for eco-cosmetics is quite simply a lucrative bandwagon.

But do greenwashing tactics really have an affect on that many shoppers?, I hear you ask.

They really do.

Out of a group of consumers surveyed by Nielson in 2015, more than half of them admitted that ‘an ‘all-natural’ description was moderately or very important to them’.

Not only is the description persuasive, but people are also prepared to fork out more money for products which they ‘perceive to be natural’.

The trend-driven natural and organic personal care industry is on track to be worth $25.1 million by 2025.

Investopedia.com

There is clearly a big business in appearing green.

Why is greenwashing a problem?

Greenwashing misleads consumers into believing untrue claims about the product they are buying.

The Soil Association (a private UK certification body) conducted research for its Campaign for Clarity project. According to the results:

74% of people said they would feel they were choosing a product which was free from nasties if it said ‘organic’ on the label.

The Soil Association

This shows how powerful words like ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ can be on cosmetic products.

But...isn't greenwashing regulated?

The short answer is no.

The problem is widespread.

The Environmental Working Group (‘EWG’) in the US runs a database of products and ingredients and assigns a toxicity score to each (Skin Deep link). More than 20% of the products on their site (about 5000 products) use the word ‘organic’ in their brand name, product name, label or ingredients list. But according to EWG many of these products received poor Skin Deep scores (toxicity ratings).

In the US the National Organic Program enforces a regulatory standard for organic claims. Yet there is no nationwide standard when it comes to natural claims and other greenwashing practices on product labelling.

There are also harmonised laws governing the use of either term in the European Union:

Unlike organic food, which must adhere to strict EU regulations, there are no legal standards for the use of the terms organic or natural on beauty products. In practice, any brand or beauty product can be labelled as natural or organic even if it contains virtually no organic or natural ingredients.

The Guardian

The EU put out a statement in 2015 confirming this and expressing concern that certain private bodies were making it seem as if such regulations existed:

[I]t seems that some European certification bodies advertise their integrated standards as the European harmonised standard for natural and organic cosmetics. This practice leads to unfair and misleading information for consumers...[and it] cannot be accepted.

European Commission

Here the EU is likely referring to private bodies such as COSMOS, ECOCERT and NaTrue, who sell certification services to producers of cosmetic products.

The situation in which natural and organic cosmetics are defined by the private sector is far from ideal.

What is the EU doing about greenwashing?

The EU established a working group in 2010 to assess natural and organic claims on cosmetic products. It was acknowledged that the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) was also working on a Standard for Natural and Organic Cosmetic Ingredients and Products (Part 1 and Part 2).

But the ISO Standard, just like those from the private sector, is not legally binding or widely used. Both ECOCERT and NaTrue have unsurprisingly expressed disapproval of the ISO standard, claiming it allows petrochemicals and genetically modified ingredients.

Of course it is up for debate what actually constitutes a natural ingredient. The difficulty in defining this will be discussed in a whole other article.

For now it is important to know what the EU said back in 2010: it would wait to assess the ISO’s results to avoid doubling up, and then ‘consider whether or not to develop EU specific criteria for natural and organic claims.’

But the need for EU regulations in this field seems inevitable. The ISO itself admits its Standard only deals with defining natural and organic ingredients and does not even begin to cover product claims or labelling.

The second part of the ISO Standard was published in late 2017. So it now becomes a waiting game to see if and when the EU will act.

What can we do in the meantime, as consumers?

Must-know tips to avoid being fooled by greenwashing

Make sure you know about these common greenwashing techniques so you won’t be fooled by them. Use our actionable tips to empower yourself as a consumer of green and eco products!

Greenwashing technique Actionable Tips
1 Using green imagery. For example: pictures of nature, green leaves, nuts and fruit. Ignore, ignore, ignore!

Such images are not in themselves bad. Honest companies use them too. But they are problematic when they are used on products with questionable ingredients with the sole purpose of making them appear cleaner or greener.

So my advice is to simply always try to be aware of these images and look past them.

Consult the ingredients list!

2 Using untrue or misleading front-of-packaging claims:
Natural
organic
botanical
herbal
unscented
allergen-free
hypo-allergenic
dermatologist-tested
No parabens / SLS / sulphates
Be proactive and read further. Check the back label and ingredients list. Don’t scan for a front-of-packaging claim like ‘No parabens’ and think the product must be free from all nasties.

Again, many honest and transparent brands feature product claims like these (Lumabelle brands included). There is nothing wrong with this, so long as they have clean ingredient lists in general. The problem arises when companies mention they left out some of these ‘hot topic’ ingredients on the label so that consumers who don’t know any better might conclude that the product in general has good and safe ingredients. They list a few nasties they left out so you won’t bother to read the rest of the ingredients.

Dermatologist-tested is another dodgy claim. It is not the same as dermatologist-endorsed. And even where the claim says approved – there is no transparency about the dermatologist and whether they were completely independent etc.

3 Being vague or lacking transparency.

Only listing ‘main ingredients’ on their website, only show images of their main ingredients (like an almond, a coconut), or not supplying an INCI ingredients list.

Know what your expectations are from companies. If they are displaying a general lack of transparency about their ingredients, it might be best to cut your losses and find better brands you can really trust.

A company I contacted in the beginning of my journey didn't list their ingredients on their website. I emailed them asking for a full ingredients list, and I got a shifty reply saying I could see the 'main' ingredients on the website (in picture form,...like a coconut, or a leaf). I asked for an INCI list, and they never replied. You should expect companies who are honest and transparent to disclose their ingredients on their website. Don't waste your time on companies that make you fish for it, or act as though they have something to hide.

4 Using the phrase ‘certified organic’ on the product without an actual certification or when only a certain ingredient is certified, misleading people to think the product as a whole is certified. Don’t blindly accept the wording – look at whether the product has a recognisable certification. I don’t believe in relying blindly on certifications either, but that’s a topic for an upcoming article. Some brands have legitimate reasons for not certifying their products, but too many brands play dirty and label their products misleadingly.
5 Making a couple of products that are mostly natural, just so they can call their company ‘green’, when most of their products actually aren’t. Don’t assume a brand’s entire range is natural or has clean ingredient lists just because one or two products do. Dig deeper, and as always read their ingredient lists and stay on your toes.

Two BONUS tips

Not sure of the tactic being used? Or just want a general check? These two tips are highly useful anytime you feel suspicious:

6 Consult the EWG Skin Deep database for toxicity ratings. If the product you’re unsure about isn’t in there, you can also search by individual ingredients. There is also a handy EWG mobile app. It’s more likely to have American brands but it’s worth a check.
7 Contact the company and ask! You should have a pretty good sense from their response whether they value transparency or whether they are glossing over the facts.

Does greenwashing remain a problem?

For the moment, yes.

Hopefully the EU will take action and harmonise European standards for the use of common terms such as ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ on cosmetic product labelling. This will reduce the potential for greenwashing to occur, force claims on labels to be science-based and increase consumer confidence.

But…

...if we’re being quite honest here, it’s unlikely to solve everything.

Brands will still find ways to greenwash, using other terms or methods not yet regulated (some of which appear in the table above, such as using images of nature or promoting one greener product to make their whole range appear green). These tactics are much harder to regulate.

In the meantime it’s up to the companies themselves to do their best to prove to consumers that they are being transparent and not making misleading claims. Lots of companies find creative ways to do this which tap into the brand’s personality and establish trust with the consumer.

...[a]s consumers grow more frustrated trying to sort out the murky definitions of words like “natural” and “safe,” pressure on consumer products companies will continue to increase. Those who respond in meaningful ways will be the ones to win customer trust.

Gwen Moran

How did you do?

Were you already aware of all the tips mentioned in this article or did you learn something new? Do you have any extra tips to add? Comment below!

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