According to Ocean Blue Project, many companies you might think of as sustainable have been accused of greenwashing, or pretending their products are more sustainable, healthy and good for the planet than they really are. Companies like Whole Foods, Nestle, Volkswagen, Rainforest Alliance, Windex and Tide have all been accused of pretending their products are good for the planet and your body when the truth is less favorable — sometimes completely the opposite.
It seems every brand on earth is claiming their products are sustainable these days, but sustainability is a multi-faceted thing and difficult to fact-check. How do you know you’re not seeing greenwashing from brands that haven’t really put in the work to make their products sustainable? Here are several ways you can check if the products you’re buying for holiday gifts, or for yourself any time of the year, are really healthy for you and the planet.
Related: Tree planting programs are actually greenwashing in disguise
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the term for when a company claims a product or service is sustainable but really isn’t much different than a non-sustainable product. There is no legal standard for calling a product eco-friendly, so how do you know what you’re getting? Many personal care products now have natural botanical ingredients in them, but this is on top of many petroleum-based ingredients, dyes and preservatives, and other artificial ingredients that aren’t good for you or the planet. Some of them are even suspected to cause cancer.
Or maybe the product is organic and clean, but the ingredients are harvested sustainably and the workers aren’t fairly compensated for their work. Perhaps you’re paying a lot of shipping to return packaging for refills but that creates extra carbon emissions from shipping. Sustainability can be complicated. Greenwashing is when a company intentionally makes its products look more sustainable than they are, but there is a wide range of factors that go into what really can be considered greenwashing.
Greenwashing usually looks like a product being marketed as all-natural, good for the planet, reduced plastic packaging, or the company donating to plant trees with every purchase, and yet the production and ingredients going into the product aren’t very good for you or the planet and the sustainability label is just a marketing ploy on top of a product that hasn’t made a dent in climate change or wellness.
How to spot greenwashing when buying gifts
When you’re looking at a list of gift ideas or personal care products, clothing or even construction materials for your home, the best way to spot greenwashing is one of the following red flags:
1. There is no full ingredient list available for a product.
2. There are no independent industry-recognized certifications for sustainability, cruelty-free testing, etc.
3. The company doesn’t have a sustainability plan published on its website.
4. Only one aspect of the product is sustainable, with no plan for greening the rest of the product or product life cycle.
What real sustainable products look like
Here’s how to spot a truly sustainable product for a gift:
1. The company knows its product ingredients and can explain its benefits on its website.
2. The company explains why they include any non-sustainable or unnatural ingredients for product performance.
3. The product lists certifications on sustainability, organic ingredients, cruelty-free testing, and package waste reduction.
4. The company website lists a sustainability plan that includes ingredients, sourcing, worker conditions, packaging waste, shipping emissions, company energy use and carbon offsets.
How to make sure a product isn’t greenwashed
There are now databases of ingredients you can research, which can also help you evaluate if ingredients are a cancer risk or healthy for you or the environment. Here are some ways to check if a product you’re considering for a gift is greenwashed:
From veggie burgers to solar companies, Greener Choices can help you evaluate whether a product is really as healthy or sustainable as the label says. If you’re looking for a gift or a home improvement product, check it out here.
Can you trust a label that says a product is sustainable? EcoLab Index tells you if that “eco-friendly” label is telling you the whole truth. Check your labels here.
SkinDeep is the web’s largest database for researching ingredients in personal care products and medications. If you want to know what polyethylene glycol is and what it does to your body and the earth, this is the place to find out how healthy an ingredient is for you and the planet.
Want to check a fashion brand or food you eat? GreenWash.com can help you look up a product by industry sector, brand name and more, as well as check plastics for safety. All brands and products are not created equal. Check it here before you buy.
The value of a sustainable gift
The value of a truly sustainable gift for your loved ones or yourself is that it’s easier on your body as well as the planet, and it’s made by a company that has demonstrated they care about every aspect of good their company is doing in the world. Some companies have taken the extra step to be certified as B Corps, which means their company is dedicated to being independently audited to prove they’re committed to doing good in the world on every level, and working toward improving in areas where their products or activities still aren’t carbon neutral or even negative.
If you buy gifts this year where greenwashing might be an issue, check out lists of sustainable products, green gift idea lists or lists of sustainable companies to get some great gift ideas that support companies trying to save our planet and do good for your body at the same time.
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