Is that brand really sustainable, or are they using greenwashing as a disguise?
As more and more people turn towards a sustainable lifestyle, words like “eco-friendly”, “all natural”, “refillable”, and “zero waste” have become ubiquitous in advertising. Most brands using these terms are genuine, but there are some who use these terms to lure consumers into a false sense of confidence in the sustainability of the brand without living up to their words.
Since these terms aren’t regulated there is no restriction on how they’re used, it falls on us as consumers to do our due-diligence when looking at eco-friendly brands, and see if they align with our personal sustainable values.
Here are some questions that I ask myself when I am considering whether or not a brand is walking the walk:
1.Do they use vague language, or do they offer transparency?
Anyone can say that they source high-quality ingredients and that they carefully vet their products for their sustainability, but if they can’t explain what standards they’re using to define “high quality” or “sustainable” then it doesn’t tell you much about their practices or values.
Any brand that claims sustainability should have a sustainability statement on their website. When you look at this, ask yourself if it answers any questions for you. For instance:
- If a brand says that they source products with high quality ingredients do they explain what ingredients disqualify a product?
- Do they say that their products are free of ‘nasty chemicals’ but offer you no clarity on which chemicals they are? (Or, one of my personal pet peeves, do they say that the product is chemical free? Spoiler alert: there is no such thing as a chemical free product.)
- If you’re looking at a product page does it show you a list of ingredients or materials?
- When talking about vetting their products and vendors do they tell you about what standards they use to decide if they want to carry a product?
- Do they mention their supply chain or offer clarity on how many steps are between the producer and them?
- Do they address fair labor and working practices, particularly in items produced overseas?
- Do they address animal testing of their ingredients, or the quality of life of animals (if their products contain animal products).
These are just a few questions that I like to see answered, but consider your personal values on sustainability and what you find most important.
If a company is large enough, you can also look for third party certifications like 1% for the Planet, B Corp, Forest Stewardship Council, Leaping Bunny, Organic, etc…
2. Are they owned independently, or by a large corporation?
This one takes a little bit of digging but I find it fascinating. When I’m looking at a sustainable brand, I like to see if it’s owned by a multinational corporation like SC Johnson, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Clorox, etc… and if it is I like to look at the general sustainability of their other products.
Some of the most popular natural brands, including Seventh Generation, Mrs. Meyers, Method, Burt’s Bees, Native, and more are owned by these conglomerates.
My reason for including this isn’t simply because I think big business is bad full stop, but I do think it’s important to consider where our dollar ends up after we spend it. When we choose corporately owned brands, the money enriches the CEO and the entire umbrella of brands, even the ones who are actively un-sustainable.
By contrast, nearly half of all Americans are employed by small, independently owned businesses. When we choose to support those brands we are investing in not only that company and their success, but we are investing in jobs and the community in which they are run.
3. Are they spending more money on advertising how sustainable they are than they are investing in actually being sustainable?
Sure, word of mouth is great, but it’s typically not enough alone for businesses to get the word out.
That being said, I tend to be dubious of companies that go out in too much force with advertising, especially when it tends towards hyperbole.
Too many times have I spoken with friends who have bought something from heavily advertised ‘green’ brands who claimed that they were zero waste only to find that what they got when they opened their order was far from what they thought they had been sold.
If you’re ordering online it can sometimes be too late when you realize that what you were advertised isn’t what you got (been there!). Once you know, though, you can write to the company to demand better, and let them know that their marketing has been misleading. If their response is not satisfactory, talk to your eco-minded friends about it. It never feels good to feel like you’ve been tricked, and if you find that others are having the same experience then it might speak to a larger problem.
Sustainability is a nuanced topic, so finding 100% sustainable answers to any problem is impossible. When it comes to figuring out if a company is genuinely green or green washing, I always look for transparency, authenticity, and humility.
Have you had any experience with greenwashing in your personal life?