According to the Collins English Dictionary, “greenwashing” is defined as “a superficial or insincere display of concern for the environment that is shown by an organization”. It’s a term that has been gaining attention over the years due to questionable practices from companies looking to exploit the growing movement towards natural alternatives. But how does the average person know how to separate truly “green” products from the rest?
One of the challenges for consumers comparing “green” brands is mining through buzzwords like “organic” and “natural” that are emotionally connected and heavily tied with the green movement. They are open-ended and carry varying legal definitions, if any at all. We've all seen packaging containing claims like “made with 91% organic ingredients”, but what does that actually mean? The answer: it depends.
"ORGANIC" DOESN'T MEAN "GREEN"
Organic certification is tricky because the definition changes by country and region. For example, the USDA standard prohibits genetically modified organisms in organic products, whereas in Canada, an “organic” ingredient used in a cosmetic product only requires that the plant or material be made without the use of pesticides. When you consider that standards can change from province to province, it becomes clear “organic” means different things to different people, even though certification exists. Therefore it cannot be used as a “green” determining factor on its own.
"NATURAL" DOESN'T MEAN "GREEN"
Another term that is widely used in food and household products is “natural”. This term has no legal definition and is completely subjective. Fortunately in Canada ingredient labeling is governed by Health Canada and is heavily regulated, so you can be confident that if an ingredient is listed in your product it's actually there. Unfortunately, when it comes to things like cosmetics, Health Canada also views synthetic and naturally derived ingredients as equally suitable. This allows brands to combine natural ingredients with synthetics without disclosing the full details, since synthetic derivatives can be patented and therefore protected from full disclosure. Therefore, consumers looking for truly “natural” products have limited protection against misleading claims and marketing gimmicks.
READ THE LABELS, GET THE DETAILS
So what is the solution for the average customer? For starters, thanks to organizations like Greenpeace and their Stop Greenwash campaign, “green-conscious” consumers are becoming increasingly empowered through the democratization of information. For a quick list, David Suzuki’s “Dirty Dozen” is a great resource to learn what ingredients to avoid, as is this toxic cosmetics ingredient glossary. Print both and take them with you everywhere you shop.
As a general rule of thumb it’s important to understand that brands that do not disclose their ingredients or use vague "proprietary" descriptions do so because they do not want you to know what those ingredients are – this is not a coincidence. After all, natural ingredients can’t be patented, so any company using them has nothing to gain from not disclosing them.
Be skeptical of vague descriptions like “botanically based ingredients” or “naturally inspired formulations” that companies include on their labels without anything to back them up. Instead, know what ingredients to look for, know what to avoid, and choose the best products for you, your family and the environment based on what’s actually in them.