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Oh my Gosh! Green-Washed?

Recently a lot of friends have been asking me “Is this cleaning product, lotion/soap/cosmetic, kid toy really green? Far from being a sustainable litmus test, I still cannot help but tilt my head, analyze and give my opinion.   I’m not looking into a green crystal ball to help me see through green-hype or green-washing. I’m using some basic guidelines to help me determine if something is truly green and if I want to buy/support/share it.

More and more eco-options are popping up in the marketplace every day. While some sectors are far from getting crowded, other sectors seem to have endless green choices. I am hard-pressed to find big box stores who sell office supplies (notebooks, folders, files) made from 100% post consumer content, or anything close to it. But walking down the cleaning product aisle, I see plenty of countertop cleaners with pictures of trees and green-colored writing on the bottle. Is this a case of more choices for consumers or a rampant case of green-washing? These five simple tips may help you decide.

Tip #1 – Read labels. Look beyond the marketing and see what is in your product. In the case of cleaning supplies, not every company is listing all of their ingredients. Many of those that do are selling ‘green’ options containing synthetic fragrances, dyes, 1,4-dioxane contaminated surfactants, and/or petroleum products. Which leads me to tip #2.

Tip #2 – If it screams “I’m Eco Friendly!” be skeptical–and follow Tip #1.  Most products that are sustainable won’t be shouting it at you, or marketing themselves as only green. In my opinion, sustainable options should not harm the environment (air, water, soil), should not be resource-intensive, should support communities, should be non-toxic to human health, should be effective and should be priced competitively. Now this doesn’t always happen in today’s marketplace. But too often I see products that shout about being green, but are not even close to being entirely sustainable (think any type of single-use bottled water, or ‘natural’ body care with SLS and synthetic fragrances). 

The price-competitive benchmark isn’t always valid because so much of today’s economy is subsidized, and true costs externalized. In the US we have access to cheap food, fuel, clothes, and consumables that come at a price much higher than what we pay at the register. I’m willing to pay more for truly sustainable products, fairly traded goods, and organic meats and cheeses, but marketing something as “green” and charging more than a non-“green” option does not make the product green.

Tip #3 – Sustainable doesn’t mean spendy. I have found so many great green options that have saved our family money, up front and/or over time – CSAs, soap nuts for laundry, DIY cleaners like baking soda and vinegar, and ditching paper towels, to name a few. While choosing where to shop and what to buy are important green habits, our practices and behaviors can also have a big impact. Buying a recycled plastic toothbrush, for example, is a greener choice, but in the case of a simple daily behavior like brushing our teeth, what we do while brushing can have an even bigger impact on our planet. (I don’t want to diminish the importance of buying recycled products!) We can save over 4 gallons of water by turning off the faucet while we brush, and what we wash down the drain is important too! Choosing toothpastes without SLS or triclosan is good for the water system and our mouths.

Look at your daily practices and habits for ways to live lighter on the earth; consider choices such as what we eat, how we travel, and sometimes what products we can do without. Tip #4 – We cannot buy solutions for everything; sometimes not buying is the greenest option. I like to focus on the back end of production, from landfills to composting. What happens to products after we consider ourselves finished with them is an important piece of the green puzzle. Recycling is really important, and so is pre-cycling – so before buying think about the waste that will be generated in a product’s life and its “after-life.” Consider skipping disposables and single-use items altogether. Buy in bulk whenever possible to avoid packaging waste.

Find tips for living lighter in our consumer culture and sustainable consumption.

When we are buying new products, how do we decide which are the “greenest?” I can easily feel overwhelmed by comparing prices, eco-impact, and style of a given product. Right now my family is looking for a replacement dishwasher. We’ve measured the space, consulted our budget and now we are looking for a washer with the best water and energy footprint. But how can I find out more about what and where the machine has been made? Short of calling all the companies and a chain of inquiry emails, I’m not sure this is info I’ll be able to find out.  But thanks to a certification called Energy Star we’ll be able to pick out a machine that uses less energy and gives us an estimate of how much it will cost to operate. The Energy Star label shows that the dishwasher uses at least 15% less energy than the government standard. Most appliances have Energy Star options these days, but it is only one part of production. Fortunately, some organizations have created certifications that inform consumers about the materials and methods of production of other types of products (the Oeko-Tex Standard, for one, certifies textiles and clothing based upon specific criteria for limiting–or avoiding–the use of harmful chemicals in production).

A quick internet search shows a few eco-tips to pick out a green machine beyond the Energy Star label. Read more.

Tip #5 – Look for transparency from companies. This goes for just about anything you buy. In today’s marketplace, look especially for transparency in eco-certifications. We are seeing eco-labels that are not certified by a third party, and some that are even “eco-certified” by the product’s parent company (as if a company would sell a product it didn’t endorse). Look for internationally recognized, independent certifications.

Transparency can be a great benchmark for things green and un-green. One question I ask myself is “What else does this company make?” If I have the option to buy something from a company that only makes truly green products you can guess what I buy. Even better if the company is locally owned and operated!

There isn’t just one path to greener living. The multitude of choices and behaviors is inspiring and empowering for me.  But I am becoming concerned about the marketing methods and green myths I’m seeing lately. Green-washing is something we all want to be aware of and want to be able to see through. In addition to our tips, I recommend looking at Terra Choi
ce’s 7 Sins
. While sin is a harsh word, and most of the green-washing I see is more about overstating claims than intentionally misleading consumers, this guide is a great primer for all of us. 

By Green Mama contributor Cecelia Ungari.

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