Greenwashing 101

Elena Bilheimer, EcoNews Journalist

By now, many environmentally-minded people are aware that companies use greenwashing and environmental marketing tools in an attempt to direct consumers to particular products and increase sales. Even with this awareness, it can be extremely difficult for consumers to navigate all the carefully designed labels that appear on every product in the store, from apples to shampoo. As the difference between false claims and credible certifications becomes harder to discern, improving label literacy is a useful tactic to identify greenwashing and choose products that reflect your environmental values.

Maggie Gainer, one of the Founders of Zero Waste Humboldt, defines greenwashing as “a way to influence environmentally conscientious consumers to believe something is better for the environment than it really is, whether it’s a package or a product.” In 1986, environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term greenwashing to describe the trend of hotels asking guests to consider reusing towels to save the environment, when in reality it was doing little more than saving them laundry costs. One of the first examples of this practice happened years earlier, when the electrical company Westinghouse responded to the anti-nuclear movement of the 1960’s with a series of ads depicting nuclear plants in pristine environments, impressing upon the public the cleanliness and safety of this energy source. Over the years, greenwashing has become entrenched in the practice of advertising, with companies developing tactics that are increasingly manipulative.

Because companies know that consumers look at labels in an effort to determine whether a product aligns with their values, labels are overloaded with a variety of symbols and appealing imagery and language. The Washington Post reported that some companies will even make up their own certifications in order to seem more credible to consumers, and over 90 percent of products are pushing false claims. Researching parent companies instead of individual products and brands is the most direct way to determine the seriousness of an environmental claim. If all else fails, supporting local farmers and businesses is one of the easiest ways to invest in your community and support the people and practices that most align with your values. For items that are not possible to buy locally, it is important to understand what certifications on a product mean. Here is a brief list to improve your label literacy:

The Recycling Symbol

This is the iconic three arrow triangle that almost everyone is familiar with. Although it is tempting to think that everything with this symbol can be tossed in the recycling bin, this symbol doesn’t actually communicate whether the product is recyclable in your area. 

According to Gainer, this is the symbol consumers should be most wary of. Whether or not it says it can be recycled on the container, it is necessary to check with your local recycling program to see if they will actually accept it.

The Word “Natural” on Packaging 

Doesn’t mean much! The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s long standing policy “has considered the term ‘natural’ to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.” This doesn’t address food production methods (including the use of pesticides) or food manufacturing and processing. Therefore, the word has been mostly left up for interpretation by the industry. 

Organic Product Labels

In the United States, use of the word “organic” and organic certifications must  be reviewed and approved by a United States Department of Agriculture-accredited certifying agent. The USDA organic symbol  itself signifies that the product must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients, meaning that the plant ingredients have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. These prohibited substances include most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms or any kind of ionizing radiation. For animal product ingredients, animals must not be administered antibiotics or hormones, must be fed 100 percent organic feed, and are supposed to be raised in humane living conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors. There are four different types of organic labels, including “100 percent organic” (everything in the product has been certified organic), “organic” (at least 95 percent organic ingredients), “made with organic ingredients” (at least 70 percent organic ingredients), and specific organic ingredient listings (meaning that the product contains less than 70 percent organic contents and the organic ingredients are specified in the ingredient list). Many food advocates claim that this certification isn’t as rigorous and strict as it needs to be.

Cruelty-Free and Leaping Bunny Symbol

The Leaping Bunny icon comes from the only international third-party cruelty free certification program. This certification signifies that there is no animal testing at any production stage of the product. However, a brand that is certified as cruelty free might still be owned by a parent company that conducts animal testing, again hightlighting the importance of researching parent companies, not individual products and brands.  It is also important to note that there is a difference between vegan and cruelty free, and products that are vegan may not necessarily be cruelty free, while products that are cruelty free may not necessarily be vegan.

The Fairtrade Mark

This is a highly recognized ethical certification, most easily spotted on coffee or bananas. This certification comes from Fairtrade International, and they claim that their primary goal is to ensure that the workers and farmers behind the products are paid fair wages. This certification is expensive, and there have been many criticisms of Fairtrade International. Some of them include a lack of transparency, favoring their own interests over the workers, and a failure to monitor standards properly.

Nature-Themed Packaging

If the product’s packaging is the color green, or has a picture of trees, flowers, bees, or anything nature related then all of these are greenwashing techniques designed to lure you to buy that product!

Resources for Further Learning:

  • The 7 Sins of Greenwashing: A Bluedot Environmental Perspective
  • Greenwashing 101: How to Decipher Corporate Claims About Climate
  • The Treehugger Guide to Sustainable Certification
  • Food Labels and Certifications: Eating in the 21st Century
  • Your Guide to Ethical Labels