Greenwashing: Don’t Be Fooled

This post is by blog team member, Amy. Check out her website Spunky Avocado and our team page to learn more about her!


If you aren’t familiar with the term “greenwashing,” it happens when a company uses misleading statements, words, images, or claims regarding a product’s sustainability or healthiness to increase the sales of their products. Or, as dictionary.com puts it, “It’s a superficial or insincere display of concern for the environment that is shown by an organization.”

Wait, what? Insincere concern for the environment? Companies misleading consumers? You betcha, and there is actually quite a lot of it going around. (Yes, folks, it is Spunky Avocado soap box time.)

Greenwashing: Don't Be Fooled on 100 Days of Real Food

Take a close look at the food we eat, our personal care items, our household cleaners, and many of the disposable items we purchase, and you can easily find examples of greenwashing. And, buyer beware, as we become a more eco-conscious society, our demands for healthier and more sustainable products and services are making all things “green” a VERY big business.

Companies, in turn, are increasingly focusing their marketing efforts on what will appeal to this growing market. Some companies make a genuine effort to move the sustainability bar higher. And some have made it a large part of their mission, identity, and branding. Others, unfortunately, are using greenwashing marketing tactics which aim, often successfully, to pull their collective green wool over our eyes.

Don’t be Fooled by Greenwashing

So, how can we recognize when we are being greenwashed? It all comes down to becoming an educated consumer. Here are some quick tips that might help you recalibrate your greenwashing “bull-pooey” detector.

Look beyond pretty packaging and buzzwords

A green leaf on a package, pretty herbs on a shampoo bottle, cows grazing in an open field, images of happy, roaming chickens, or any number of phrases such as all natural, earth-friendly, non-toxic, eco, cage-free, made with organic, naturally derived, etc., can paint a picture of health and sustainability and marketers know it. The images are meant to be a hook, prompting shoppers to pick up that product without digging deeper.

In reality, those chickens and cows might be suffering through life on an inhumane factory farm. Or that shampoo might be full of hormone disruptors and potential carcinogens. And that frozen dinner might have one organic ingredient out of twenty. So, as Lisa guides us when it comes to food, don’t impulsively purchase a product based solely on the front of the package and first impressions. It is important to be a discerning consumer and …

Greenwashing: Don't Be Fooled on 100 Days of Real Food

Become an expert label reader

The good news is, if you are a regular 100 Days of Real Food reader, you already know there is no shortage of companies who put misleading claims on their food packaging. You also know the REAL truth of how healthy or sustainable a food is, lays bare in its ingredient list. Fortunately, the simple rule is: the shorter the list the better.

The same holds true for chemical-laden personal care and household cleaning products. This is ever so important because the US has not passed a significant law to regulate personal care product ingredients since 1938. This should bring you pause considering the European Union has banned more than 1,300 ingredients not proven safe, many of which can be found in the products we slather daily on our skin (our largest organ). To date, the US has partially banned only 30.*

Gratefully, once again, I point to The Environmental Working Group as having excellent tools to help consumers get down to the nitty-gritty details in these ingredient lists. Their website has three databases: Skin Deep, the Guide to Healthy Cleaning, as well as Food Scores. And each provides extensive details and ratings on many of the items you buy every day. They also have a handy mobile Healthy Living App which allows you to scan barcodes while shopping, preventing true buyers remorse.

Avoid greenwashing and chemical ingredients in products by making them yourself

I realize this is not always feasible, but just like the REAL foods you cook, when you make your own personal care and cleaning products, you get to choose every ingredient. Vinegar, lemons, and cheap vodka go a long way in keeping your house fresh and clean while coconut oil, apple cider vinegar, essential oils, etc. can replace A LOT of commercial personal care products. You can find more information and specific recipes at our website, Spunky Avocado.

Look for proof, research, and verify

I was in a hotel recently where I was a bit cynical about their many signage reminders to reuse towels. For one thing, we ALWAYS reuse towels in our family. But moreover, I simply doubted this giant corporation’s dedication to sustainability.

That prompted me to dig in and do a bit of research. I found out that indeed they are working seriously towards sustainability and have made measurable strides. If a company has serious intentions and actual data behind their claims, you will be able to find it easily on their website because they are proud of it. If you can’t find it or if it is deeply buried with little detail, you can assume their claims are just fluff. When in doubt, Google it with a very critical eye.

Know your green product certifications

A symbol on a package is meaningless unless it is legitimately tied to a certification process. Become familiar with those that are truly improving sustainability. That said, also be aware that smaller companies, local small businesses, and small farms might not be able to jump through all the hoops of various certification processes such as USDA organic labeling. In these cases, ask the businesses or farmers directly about the details of their products and practices regarding health and sustainability.

Greenwashing: Don't Be Fooled on 100 Days of Real Food

Know the parent company of the products you purchase

Be aware that some of the once small, independent companies that we loved to trust have been bought up by corporate giants. Do a little research and you’ll see that Annie’s was purchased by General Mills, Burt’s Bees went to Clorox, Tom’s of Maine is now owned by Colgate, and Applegate was bought by Hormel, to name a few. This does not mean that their standards were automatically compromised. It just means you can’t take their old standards for granted.

See greenwashing for what it is and hold corporations responsible for sustainable practices

Can we talk, please? I mean, come on, images of an oil company doing the right thing by cleaning up an environmental mess they created should not really give us warm fuzzies.

Yes, we are glad they are cleaning up beaches and saving some of the lives of oil-covered wildlife. But it would have been far better if that spill hadn’t happened in the first place. And better yet if they legitimately cleaned up their image by looking for truly sustainable solutions and channeling their extensive resources into the development of clean alternative/non-fossil fuel energy.

Greenwashing: Don't Be Fooled on 100 Days of Real Food

Bottom line, companies and corporations will change their greenwashing practices if their customers demand it

Think about this. Four billion paper coffee cups get thrown away every year courtesy of one coffee company that touts its efforts toward sustainability. All but around 1% of these cups end up in landfills. Why? It’s due to a layer of polyethylene, which makes this mostly paper cup mostly not recyclable. That’s shameful.

The truly green solution is promoting and consistently providing meaningful incentives for bringing reusables. But let’s be honest, the consumer has a big role to play here, too. We have to take responsibility for what we are willing to purchase and the conveniences we are willing to sacrifice.

One of our guiding principles at Spunky Avocado is that we “vote” with our wallets. We hold that power. If we refuse to buy products that are harmful to ourselves and to our environment, companies will have no choice but to make better, safer, healthier, and more sustainable products. With that power, we can help shape the overall health of ourselves and this planet. But it is 100% up to us to DEMAND it.

*source: BeautyCounter

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5 thoughts on “Greenwashing: Don’t Be Fooled”

  1. Good info. We eat only grassfed and free range. I had no idea Hormel bought Applegate. I will have to do research to see if I will keep buying their products.

  2. Many companies maintain their standards when purchased by larger organizations. Like Annie’s. It gives them opportunities to reach more consumers, and can influence the way the parent company does business. Notice how GM cereals now have more grains and less sugar? Still needs improvement but improvement has happened.

    Sure some formerly great companies really do sell out. But most of them are just trying to make a buck and sell more stuff, and they can only do that by maintaining their high standards.

  3. Very interesting article indeed. It seems that many companies that once offered incentives for bringing reusables are skimming back. Our local grocery store used to offer $.02 or $.05 for each plastic or cloth bag brought, but no longer do this. Our local coffee shop used to offer a $.60 discount for bringing your own mug but now it is more like $.10. You really do need to take more responsibility today and be satisfied with knowing you are making a difference even if there is no immediate incentive because the real incentive is keeping our bodies and earth healthy.

  4. This is an excellent post. Know your laws and regulations and read labels.
    Here in France, a lot of concerns are taken care of by regulation already. Growth hormones have been illegal in the EU since 1981.
    That said, you can’t say you’re “bio” (organic_ unless you go through complex regulatory requirements, but you can put “bio” in your name without claiming to be a bio label. My doctor informed me of this after I had a massive reaction to a skincare product with bio in the name. “It’s anything but bio,” she said.
    Lesson learned.

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