Greenwashing: False Advertising

by Madeleine Hawks and Laura Pilati

Laura’s sad story: About a month ago, I found myself plumb out of shampoo and conditioner. I had been scraping the inside of the bottles for weeks like a crunchy addict, and it just wasn’t delivering anymore. I didn’t have time to go to the store before my next lathering, so I asked my boyfriend to drop by Ellwood Thompson’s to get me my fix. Trusting his judgement, I didn’t specify a particular product–I had been wanting to try something new and decided to be surprised. But when he returned to our apartment with a bottle of J.A.S.O.N. in his hand, I clenched my fists and cursed the fates–he had been greenwashed!!!*

Greenwashing is when a company misleads the consumer by falsely portraying an environmentally-friendly product through advertising and packaging.  Although the term was coined in the 1980s, the recent mainstream concern with environmental issues surrounding sustainability and health has piqued the interest of companies looking to increase profits.  This is especially noticeable in the increase in “natural” beauty products.  It’s great to see consumers taking note of these changes and opting for “natural” products; however, it’s not all milk and honey in the realm of beauty. Making the bottle literally green and adding a picture of a leaf does not make the product more natural, but some companies capitalize on the assumption that the consumer will not pay attention to that.

Not you! You are smarter than the greenwashing. Next time you need a new product, remember to DIG for information (sorry I’m not sorry about that pun).

1. Disregard the packaging.

I’m basically the target audience for beautiful packaging, a great logo, or a clever name.  However, I try to resist getting swept up in the packaging on my personal care products as much as possible (leave that for my wine selection criteria). It’s a real challenge.

2. Inventory the promises.

What are the claims the company is making? Are they straightforward or just distracting? Words like “botanical”, “pure”, or even “natural” have different definitions to different folks. Also, a company can brag about what it doesn’t include while ignoring what it still has in its products. Case in point: the J.A.S.O.N. bottle above entices me with “no parabens, sls, or phthalates”, but does it include fragrance (answer: yes)? Finally, hone in on anything concrete that you can look for evidence about–what natural ingredients are they advertising? Are they suggesting that they are an organic company or otherwise certified?

3. Go to the back.

Flip the bottle or box over and skim the ingredients list, comparing it to what you noticed on the front. Are you getting dizzy from too many chemical names in fine print? Do the ingredients match the promises made? And, if the product/brand is claiming to be organic, are the product’s ingredients certified organic (look for the certification logo)? In the example of these three hair products, the first and third products do meet the promises made by the company.  However, the second item (a dry shampoo) is actually an example of greenwashing. Not only do the ingredients not match the advertisement, but there are also some pretty scary stuff in there. Oh, hello, propane!

Madeleine’s rule of thumb is if she can draw a picture of the ingredient, it’s likely safe. Examples of this would be chamomile, aloe, or coconut oil. She is not currently able to draw any pictures of  sodium laureate sulfate or methylparaben, which are common ingredients.  This is a simplification, but also a quick way to start reading ingredients labels.

And here are some other things to think about while reading those labels before you buy:

  • Ingredients are listed in descending order from the item with the highest proportion to the item with the lowest proportion.  In other words, the product contains the single greatest amount of the first ingredient (in comparison to the other ingredients) and the least amount of the last ingredient. The first five ingredients generally make up about 95% of the product.
  • Do the other ingredients in the product make purchasing the product for its “green” or “natural” ingredients worth it? Is there something else out there that includes the same benefits without the proverbial costs? Laura will put down products that are 99.9% up to par just because they contained “fragrance” (see our post from the other week). But avoiding fragrance is also something important to her personally–you’ve got to pick your battles and stick to your guns.
  • If the product does contain the advertised ingredient, is the company being entirely truthful about the way in which they’ve included it? For example, an ingredient “derived from coconut” or an “aqueous infusion of lavender” are not the same things as coconut oil and pure lavender essential oil.
  • Be careful: some brands have been known to fake certifications–if your product is claiming to be organic or animal-cruelty-free, for example, make sure that the certification logos on your bottle are respected nationally.
  • Side note: everything described in this post applies to household cleaning/enhancing products, too. However, it is much harder to verify the ingredients on such products because of the legal requirements surrounding disclosure–most companies are not required to reveal the “magic solutions” making up their cleaning formulas.

No matter what, you ultimately have to decide on your own policies and procedures for selecting and purchasing personal care products. As we say, you are your own best advocate! But it’s important to recognize the difference between selecting a product because you like the way it works or the ingredients it contains and selecting it because the company wants you to believe that you like those things.

We’ll be back next week with a follow-up post on ingredient categories and specific ingredients that researchers and advocates generally say to be cautious of or avoid altogether. In the meantime, have you ever been a victim of greenwashing? What are your favorite products and selection criteria (for wine, shampoo, or otherwise…)?

*Some people really like J.A.S.O.N. products. Laura’s a stickler for fragrance, so she buys products that don’t use it.  

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11 responses to “Greenwashing: False Advertising

  1. Never trust menfolk to select your beauty products 😛 Awesome article, ladies! I fall victim to pretty packaging quite often, unfortunately, but next time I’ll be sure to be more scrutinizing!

  2. Great article! It’s important people know thar just because something looks natural that doesn’t mean it actually is. Pretty leaves on a bottle aren’t a good scale for choosing a product. It’s sad that companies are trying to trick consumers.

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  4. great post! i am currently writing my thesis on consumer response to greenwashing and before i started writing it i never really realized how much greenwashed crap is around us!

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  6. Great article! I, too, love pretty logos! I’m very picky about the fragrances and ingredients. I finally found a company that I can trust for my personal and household products.

  7. Pingback: Greenwashing e cosmetici - ROLLING m@mas·

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