Have you ever bought a product just because it screams "I'm Green" through it's branding? Deceived by such terms as 'eco-friendly' or 'all natural'? Companies are trying to get on the Green bandwagon and increasing their sustainability practices and corporate responsibility programs. Some companies, like Patagonia, walk the walk and more. Their sustainability practices are legendary. Others simply try to 'greenwash' people - It's the latest marketing strategy used by companies to con consumers into thinking they are making sustainable and responsible purchases.
How are we being greenwashed?
Ambiguity in branding: Many companies label their products as 'Eco friendly". This is the most over-used term without any specific meaning attached to it. There is no basis or check on this claim. Similar ambiguous buzz words are 'Green', 'Environment', 'Natural', 'Nature's own' 'Farm fresh', 'Quality Food' 'Gentle' and so on. Unfortunately companies can put sustainable claims on their products without the need to verify them. Even simply changing the name, tagline, or colors of their products to earthy or blue/green tones, tricks people into believing they are making a better choice. Pharmaceutical companies depict their brand with sunshine and happiness and print the side effects in an unreadable font. Car companies tout their cars as 'electrifying' which sounds like a great way of reducing your carbon footprint. What it actually means is that the cars have some kind of hybrid power which is often mild and is way less effective/environment-friendly than consumers think. Ever seen “90% post-consumer recycled content” on bath tissues? If there is no third party certification asserting this claim, it's most likely fake.
Other trade-offs and misleading information:
Often times we will see labels such as 'gluten-free' on a milk carton (yes, inherently gluten-free products can put this on their label). Seen a zero-calorie label on a water bottle? Vegan bags that are made out of harmful plastic? Organic cigarettes (inherently harmful), compostable single-use coffee pods (too much waste), facial cleansers and soaps with microbeads (they go directly into the ocean and stay there for ever), products made with all natural palm oil (deforestation and exploitation of indigenous communities) are a few more examples of how we are duped into thinking these products are somehow better or benefitting the environment.
Some clothing companies tout the use of 100% organic and natural fiber (which is great) but many of these clothes are made in exploitative conditions (obviously, not great). Similarly, others tell the story of their cell phones and laptops with better, long lasting, energy saving batteries (made in exploitative and even hazardous conditions) and also asking consumers to upgrade to a newer model (enabling tons more electronics to be dumped into landfills). Hotels ask guests to not wash their towels every day and give themselves the right to say 'We care about the Earth', while not having any other sustainable practices such as energy-saving appliances, waste management, local procurement, fair wages, and other environmental upkeep and side effects. Some chocolate products have a 'made with fair trade coffee beans' label, but the coffee beans are a miniscule part of the ingredients. Although technically correct, these products hide their darker side and fail to give us a clear and complete picture.
Many corporates have robust sustainability pages which have lot of fluff words, no real targets, and cannot be held accountable. Sometimes they do have a small percentage of sustainability programs but the way they market it makes it seem like the entire product range is sustainably made.
Then there are some labels that are not all they seem to be.
Reading labels is essential while shopping for products, but not all labels are the same. Here are a few that don't quite mean what they say:
Free range or Cage-free: Free range or cage-free evokes feelings of happy chickens and cows roaming around a farm freely, pecking on grains and other nutritious food. Did you know that even if you leave your chickens outside for a mere five minutes, you can put 'free range' on your packaging? Free range does not indicate the number of chickens in a coop, the condition and cleanliness of the coop, or the condition of the outdoor space.
100% Natural: 'Natural' does not have standards or rules. Anyone can use the word as long as the ingredients are derived from nature.
Whole grain, Made with Real Fruit: The FDA is pretty lax when it comes to 'whole-grain' labelling. They simply recommend a product can be labelled such if it is derived from whole grain or whole wheat. Plus, they can also often contain additional ingredients such as sugar and artificial coloring and flavoring. Similarly, 'Made with real fruit' does not mean it is 100% fruit. Companies do not have to disclose the percentage of real fruit in it's product.
What should we look for?
There are a lot of third-party certifications that companies can put on their products. Some of them are genuinely live up to the mark. Others are endorsed by special-interest groups or organizations closely associated with the company. Here are some labels that are well-respected and trustworthy, but most of them still don't address all the aspects of sustainability:
Any companies that have these labels are vetted aggressively for their sustainability practices.
B Corp: Any company or product that has this certification has been thoroughly vetted and approved to be a B Corp as a social and environmentally friendly company that puts people, planet and purpose in the forefront.
C2C: Cradle to Cradle, or C2C products are designed to be used and reused till they are safely disintegrated.
Here are some other well-known and trusted labels. Links below for additional information.
The bottom line is, it is difficult to find brands that are 100% sustainable. It's important to do research, support brands that you vet and trust. Doing the right thing is not always possible, unless there is an industry-wide change in practices and governmental policies. Do what you can, buy things you actually need (and a few that you want), practice the many Rs of sustainability (Refuse, Reuse, Reduce, Recycle, Regift, Rethink, Reject, Repurpose, and so on) and shop meaningfully.