Greenwashing Update

How To Be a Smart Shopper



We may think we are protecting our family’s health and the Earth’s environment by buying eco-friendly products, but a second look at some so-called “green” products may reveal we’ve been led astray. When companies hurry to cash in with new product lines touting natural living products, too many of the changes are more cosmetic (new packaging, appealing earthy logos) than chemical; sometimes toxicity levels decrease in only minimal amounts. With green marketing campaigns in overdrive, how can we be sure that we truly are selecting a certified safe product?

Hijacking True Eco-Trends

Greenwashing occurs when more money or time is spent on advertising and labeling green characteristics than actually developing and implementing environmentally sound products and practices. Words such as natural, non-toxic and eco-safe are now widely misused.

Although greenwashing has been around for nearly a quarter century, corporations today are committing to it at unprecedented levels as they go after the growing market for eco-friendly products. Companies have duly noted that even the average Jane is now interested in protecting the environment and is willing to pay a premium to help. When products and services are really green, everyone wins; but when they are suspect, everyone suffers from a false sense of stewardship.

The hijacking of green by irresponsible corporations is aptly characterized by Jay Westerveld’s initial 1986 report on greenwashing, first used to describe the reuse of towels in the hotel industry. His research implied that in-room signage stating that, “Reusing the hotel towels helps save the environment,” was more a ploy to increase reservations from patrons concerned about their environmental footprints than an actual credo of hotel management. One can hardly assert environmental responsibility based on laundry alone, but many hotels did, even though they were not participating in any other forms of resource conservation, recycling or waste reduction.

The bottled water industry is a more recent example. Amid mounting negative publicity about their unsustainable practices, these companies aggressively overhauled label designs and switched to thinner plastic bottles. Yes, the new form is less wasteful, but drinking bottled water remains among the most environmentally unfriendly habits; plus, drinking from plastic, made with petrochemicals, is unhealthy, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study published in 2011 in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Thankfully, the tide is turning in many companies with integrity. For example, in the 20 years since Westerveld’s report, more hotels are starting to introduce genuine environmental reforms, but so much more progress is needed across the board in business that the true pioneers stand out. Unfortunately, given the creativity of evolving greenwashing tactics, it is becoming more difficult to distinguish between authentic ecoalterations and mere overtures to green living. Buyer beware still applies.

Green Products Must Walk the Walk

Here are some telltale signs of greenwashing.

Fluffy or ambiguous language. Beware of terms such as all natural, true organic experience or free of [insert scary chemical name]. These terms are not government regulated, and mean nothing. Even the organic monicker has multiple definitions that are meaningless unless a product is certified organic by a respected institution that issues objective standards.

Partial or nonexistent list of ingredients. The entire list should be on the label for 100 percent transparency.

Unverified health claims. Many companies lie or outright fabricate claims or data. Demand to see supporting scientific studies.

A questionable parent company. If a maker is owned by a company notorious for toxic outputs, chances are that the product’s formula has undergone only minimal changes from the original, non-green version.

Consumers are not powerless. “Our research shows that while some consumers blindly trust green product claims, a growing number are doing research on product labels or going online,” says Kevin Tuerff, president of EnviroMedia and co-founder of the Greenwashing Index. “Unfortunately, the Federal Trade Commission is way behind in issuing new rules on green marketing that would protect consumers and help our environment.” GreenwashingIndex.com was launched in 2007 to help shoppers know how to identify vague or misleading claims and when they can be confident of product authenticity.

The good news is that more companies today than ever are honestly working toward becoming more green. Smart shoppers will help them on their way by consistently making the right environmental choice, not just a marketing choice. Buyer be aware.


Actor, author and pioneering environmental activist Ed Begley, Jr., is a prominent figure in the green movement. Begley’s Earth Responsible Products of plant-based, sustainable and rapidly biodegradable ingredients equal or outperform their non-green counterparts (BegleysBest.com).

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