Greenwashing – Do not Be Fooled by False Labeling Claims

Margarita FolkPosted by

Green is the New Black

Walk down the personal care isle of the supermarket isles and you might see 3 or 4 hair products with "organic" or "natural" ingredients or branded with an organic sounding name. Take a closer look at the label and you will soon realize that underneath the feel good name these products are still made of synthetic cleansers, including artificial fragrances and are chock full of preservatives. True to label claim there may be a a percent of an organic essential oil or herbal extract but is this what we really expect as consumers when we read "organic" or "natural" on the label of a product? Practices such as these are known as greenwashing. To be more specific, when a company or organization misleads consumers by claiming have green practices or sell green products without actually having any or limited basis for this claim, this is known as greenwashing.

From a consumer perspective, green is the new black. Companies are jumping on the green bandwagon in an effort to appear more ecologically sound and in many instances, those behind the marketing claims really are making an effort to minimize their impact on the environment. However, in other cases, it is all just a marketing ploy to get consumers on side. In skincare, the issue becomes even more blurred and there are many companies taking advantage of an industry-wide lack of clarity. In the skincare industry Greenwashing can occur in a number of different ways.

1. Using a single environmental claim suggesting that the product is greener than it actually is eg. A shampoo that claims to contain no Sodium Laurel Sulphate (SLS) but uses alternative foaming agents such as Ammonium Laurel Sulphate, which have the same risks associated with their use.

2. Having no proof – for example personal care products that claim to that they are "fair trade" without any certification or evidence. Whiel the certificatio nmay not necessarily be on the lable, upon request from the manufacturer or supplier you should receive evidence of fair trade status.

3. Lack of definition – using terms such as "green" or "natural" without actually indicating what that means. Australia has no set guidelines here, so there is a lot of confusion as to what is considered "natural skin care". Again if in doubt, ask the manufacturer or supplier what their guidelines are for making a "natural" label claim.

4. Make "green" claims that are irrelevant. The claim might be truthful, but is also unimportant, eg CFC-free shaving creams. Given that the use of CFC (cholorflurocarbons) has been banned for some time, this claims is considered irrelevant.

5. Outright fibbing about a "green" claim, eg. A product that claims to be "certified organic" when there is no such certification. In many cases the claim is not so blatant. Eg. A certain well known company offers 'a truly organic experience', but also uses SLS, propylene glycol and D & C red dyes in their products, which are not organic. This in not to say that the product does not include some organic ingredients but to the consumer, the assumption is that the product is truly organic.

As a consumer how do you work your way through the fog of marketing greenwash? Firstly, read the labels and full ingredient listing of the products you choose to determine the products full worth. If you are unsure about an ingredient, ask the supplier or seller. Once you know you can make an informed choice about the products you use.

Second look for evidence of certification. In Australia, unlike "natural" status we have strict guidelines about "organic" status. If a product claims to be "certified organic" ensure the appropriate certification logo is on the label eg products bearing the logos of Australian Certified Organic (ACO) or the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture of Australia (NSAA).

Many skin care manufacturers claim that a product is organic or natural without certification but you want to know that the claim is made with integrity. For example, a manufacturer including water when claiming a product is 99% organic when in fact this is a misleading claim. Water does not contribute to the organic status of a skin care product and so should not be included in the percentage claim. If a product claims to be organic, as opposed to certified organic, ask the supplier or manufacture what this means.

Green marketing is a powerful tool of communication for both buyers and sellers. More and more consumers expect to see evidence of a commitment to the environment from manufacturers and the green dollar spend is increasing as a result. If a product is not green, natural or organic, that's OK but truth in advertising is fundamental to the ongoing growth of the green industry. Without it, consumer cynicism and apathy creep in and we will lose the potential for not just greener products but also a greener earth.

Green is not the only color that sufferers mistreatment at the hands of marketing companies. The list of pink ribbon products promoting Breast Cancer Awareness grows every year including skin care, teddy bears, household appliances and the list goes on, with many companies pinning on the pink ribbon in an attempt to raise their profile by associating with a good cause. However, the Breast Cancer Action group urges people to "think before they pink." This group asks consumers to ask critical questions before buying on the basis of pink ribbon status.

The first question is how much money from the purchase actually goes towards breast cancer? If the amount is minimal, and you are really concerned about breast cancer, ask yourself if you would be better off actually donating money directly to your local or national breast cancer group.

Is there a maximum amount that the company will actually donate? Presumably buying pink ribbon goods after this amount has been reached will not be donated and so you may actually not be supporting breast cancer after all.

Which breast cancer organization does the money go to and is it one that you support yourself? If not, again sometimes a direct donation is preferred. If you want to ensure that the money you give is reaching the people who need it the most, take a moment to find out where the money actually goes and if the organization is actually already well funded or not.

Finally, the company insure you that the pink ribbon product being promoting is not actually contributing to the breast cancer epidemic. With skin care this is a critical consideration as there is growing research that some of the chemical ingredients included in products may actually increase the risk of developing cancer. Some examples include parabens and phthalates which recent studies indicate may be linked to cancer development. Others include formaldehyde, coal tar and talc. It is not enough for cosmetic companies to claim that they will not be absorbed because we know that they are with recent research showing evidence of parabens in human breast cancer tissue (Darbre et al. 2004).

Arguments stating that the quantities of harmful chemicals found in skin care are so small that they will not have an effect do not wash either. In groups such as children and developing teens, even minuscule quantities may have serious consequences. In addition, most women use numerous personal care items every day making adding to the accumulation of chemicals building up in our bodies.

The above gives serious pause for thought about choosing to buy some "pink ribbon" products specifically in the case of skin care, where the risk is not just that money may be misdirected but rather that the product itself may be the problem.

Green and pinkwashing are issues we now commonly face as consumers however, a little curiosity and some well asked questions will help you to work your way through the marketing maze. Some other useful resources include:

1) Darbre, PD, Aljarrah, A., Miller, WR, Coldham, NG, Sauer, MJ, and Pope, GS, "Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumors," Journal of Applied Toxicology, Jan 2004: 5-13.

Source by Ananda Mahony