May 31, 2023


Beware of Greenwashing

By: Kelvey Vander Hart

The free market is a beautiful thing. Sure, there are certainly American roadblocks to obtaining the fullest of expression of a pure free market system (like subsidies and corporatism), but it is still easy to be an educated consumer and to vote with your dollar. But what happens when you’re trying to vote for pro-planet choices just to find out that what you’re buying isn’t so sustainable after all? 

It happens frequently, so beware of greenwashing. 

What is greenwashing? The buzzy term gets thrown around a lot. But the Natural Resources Defense Council defines it as “the act of making false or misleading statements about the environmental benefits of a product or practice.” Talking about the practice more, the council stated

“It can be a way for companies to continue or expand their polluting as well as related harmful behaviors, all while gaming the system or profiting off well-intentioned, sustainably minded consumers. The term was actually coined back in 1986 in an essay by environmentalist and then student Jay Westerveld. While visiting a hotel in Fiji, Westerveld noticed that it asked guests to reuse towels for the planet’s sake—a request that would also conveniently save the hotel money. Meanwhile, the hotel, located near sensitive island ecosystems, was in the middle of an expansion.” 

To be clear, businesses certainly have a right to save money, expand, and market their products. But for eco-friendly consumers, it is important to develop a discerning eye so that we can separate actual sustainability from suspected greenwashing and choose which businesses we support carefully. 

Here are a few questions that can get you started down a more discerning road: 

What company makes the product? 

Is the company actually sustainable, or do they just try to present themselves that way? Click into the brand’s website and look for their sustainability page (sometimes part of the FAQ). Looking at their certifications and environmental commitments is usually a good jumping off point. If you search for the company online, you’ll typically find at least a couple of reputable environmental review websites that can give you outside opinions. 

What certifications does this product have? 

Was it tested on animals? Is it organic? Is it fair trade? Third-party certifications can help you understand more about the product itself. I wrote this guide to help get you started with understanding basic environmental certifications. 

How is the product packaged? 

If something is packaged in a ton of plastic and being marketed as a sustainable option, that should raise some red flags for discerning consumers. The best option is clearly no packaging at all or the ability to do bulk refills with already existing containers, but most products won’t be available via these options. Companies that are dedicated to sustainability typically make an effort to package in paper, metal, or glass, so seeing those packaging types is a good sign. 

What is the ingredient list? 

Finally, check out the ingredients list. For things like clothing and bedding, look for organic, natural fibers that have some sort of third-party certification behind them. For things like food, cleaning products, and bath or beauty products, look for an ingredients list that does not contain fillers, additives, and toxic ingredients. Fragrance is also a good thing to avoid as that one word can be a stand in for many incredibly toxic chemicals.

Searching a product through the Environmental Working Group’s website can give you a good rundown of whether it is toxic to the environment and yourself. A little searching can help you avoid putting known endocrine disruptors and carcinogens onto or into your body while keeping them out of the environment

With key questions, a discerning eye, and the willingness to walk away from things that are bad for the environment, eco-friendly free marketeers can begin combatting greenwashing. And, in doing so, they vote for the planet with every dollar spent.