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Be Your Own Greenwashing Brigade: A 4-Step Guide to Sniffing Out Eco-Smoke (& Mirrors)

As consumer demand grows for safe beauty products, marketing departments get better at making their products sound less synthetic without actually delivering the green goods. As a result, rather than increased transparency, we get layer after layer of…er…let’s called it mud. The typical advice is to read labels. I don’t know about you, but for me that can feel like a full time job. In chemistry. Without a degree. I’ve found other ways to detect the washing of the green, and thought I’d pass along what I have learned.

1) Are the ingredients clearly displayed on the label?

If the answer to this first question is a no, you’ve almost certainly happened upon a company engaged in greenwashing. When ingredients are hidden, it almost always means there is something in that list they want to hide. A great example is Victoria’s Secret’s Pink body care line, the contents of which are hidden beneath a white sticker with a nondescript black arrow, discretely placed underneath the bottle. The ingredients are not anywhere on the website, another bad sign (see Tip #4). A brand promoting a natural line that is indeed organic and/or natural will proudly display their ingredients where a consumer can easily find them.

2) Are the ingredients easy to read?

Similar to tip #1, the easier the ingredients label is to read and understand, the more likely it is as natural and organic as it purports to be. But again, this gets harder as companies find more creative ways to list the contents of their products.

While I recognize there are valid disputes with the various certifying bodies out there (USDA, Ecocert, BDIH and so forth), I appreciate that they require all certified products to meet strict labeling standards, such as indicating organic ingredients with the *. Without this standardized labeling requirements, companies can list ingredients in ways that make products sound organic, even when they are not. If you’re looking for all or mostly all organic ingredients, know that wording such as “organic jojoba, grapeseed and hazelnut oils” is a clever way to disguise the fact that only the jojoba is organic. Also, be wary of phrases like “naturally-derived surfectants,” “plant-based cleansers,” and other natural sounding but nonspecific terms. A lot of potentially harmful ingredients could be considered naturally-derived; the phrase itself has no legal definition, and is therefore meaningless.

3) Does the company use its own, or highly obscure, labels to support their claims of “natural,” “organic,” or “cruelty-free”?

Any company can invent and slap on symbols to denote just about anything. But only a relative handful of logos and symbols carry a guarantee that an objective third party has bothered to check whether these claims are true, or that they mean what the consumer thinks they mean. One example would be the creative variations of the Leaping Bunny symbol.  Only the Leaping Bunny organization conducts on-site audits to ensure that neither the company nor its suppliers test on animals. And yet, many high-profile companies use their own cruelty-free symbol, which should immediately raise the red flag. Does this mean the company itself does not test on animals, but its suppliers do? Why not use the Leaping Bunny symbol if they meet the requirements? Furthermore, if you see an unfamiliar logo or symbol implying that a product is natural or organic, look it up before assuming it is legitimate. When it comes to certifications for beauty products, it truly is the Wild West out there.

As a side note, it should be said that certifying bodies such as BDIH, Ecocert, USDA and Soil Association also require the absence of animal testing. Consequently, any of these logos provide assurance that no animal testing has been done at any stage of the product’s creation.

4) How transparent is the website?

This is particularly important when it comes to household cleaning products. I’m fairly convinced there is no regulation whatsoever when it comes to labeling cleaning products, because if there was, could companies really get away with phrases like “Surfactants Derived from Plant Sources”? That is what you’ll find on the label of Mrs. Myer’s Liquid Dish Soap, along with “Preservative,” and “D&C Certified Color.” Super helpful, thanks.

In fact, I found similarly vague language on most of the cleaners in my local natural foods market . So I went to brand websites and that, my friend, is where the green distinguished itself from the greenwashed. Back to Mrs. Myers. On their website’s product page for the aforementioned dish soap, the same generic terms are listed, with an asterix telling me I can find more information about certain ingredients on the Environmental & Safety section of the Company Information page. I head over to that page, and here is what they have to tell me:

“We use naturally derived ingredients whenever possible from corn, sugar cane, coconut and palm. When we cannot find a plant-derived ingredient that performs to our rigorous standards, we use ingredients from the world of safe synthetics. These are materials with a long history of safety and efficacy in use for people and the environment they live in. At Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day, we do our best every day to make our formulations as natural as possible without compromising freshness, and performance.”

Next, I pop over to the Seventh Generation website. Although I had to do a bit of digging to find the full ingredients list for their liquid dish soap, once I got there I had easy access to every ingredient in every product. Whether or not I’m thrilled with every ingredient I find there, I can at least take comfort in knowing that I’m making decisions with all the information in-hand. With Mrs. Myers’, I am only left with more questions.

There you have it: my tips for making it at least somewhat easier for you to sift through the…mud…when shopping for natural products. My hope is that as consumers become savvier, stop buying pseudo-green goods, and demand more transparency, more regulation will follow and you won’t need anyone to provide tips or guidelines (or a degree in chemistry) in order to find exactly what you are looking for.

Written by Terri Bly

Terri Bly is the founder of The Nature of Beauty, LTD, an all-eco website, shop, and spa. She is a freelance writer, currently residing in Minneapolis.

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