Green, environmentally conscious products seem to be everywhere these days, at gas stations, dollar stores, big box stores, shopping mall kiosks, and bodegas. As consumers have become more keyed into the benefits—both for the environment and for themselves—of upcycled, carbon neutral, refillable and toxin-free products, manufacturers have obligingly striven to meet demand.
Unfortunately, just because a product claims it’s green has little bearing on the reality. Many so-called green products just give lip service to sustainability. Since the federal government doesn’t regulate cosmetic ingredients like it does food, any company can slap terms like pure, natural, nature-inspired, eco-safe and plant-derived on its labels. These vague eco-adjectives may mask other harsh ingredients, such as phthalates, petroleum and carcinogenic by-products.
So how can you tell if a product is truly sustainable? Because greenwashing (labelling a product as green without any concrete evidence of environmental responsibility) has become rampant, you do have to do some sleuthing to separate the eco-friendly from the eco-harmful.
Fake it till you make it
One of the most common examples of greenwashing is to publicly claim a commitment to the environment while discreetly lobbying to avoid regulation. Some companies will boast about green efforts they have made but avoid mentioning green practices they are reluctant to adopt because of cost.
Companies that greenwash may, at best, improve one aspect of a product out of self-interest but do nothing about the other negative impacts. At worst, they are green in name only, fooling gullible consumers into thinking they are buying a product with sustainable ingredients when in fact it might be a toxic soup.
7 Ways to Tell if a Product is Environmentally Friendly
1. Investigate the buzzwords
Anyone can use the terms eco-friendly, green, all-natural, earth-friendly, plant derived, organic (but not organic certified) and non-toxic. They may or may not correspond to fact. For instance, a label may use the term all-natural on its packaging to describe uranium and formaldehyde. Even though both occur naturally, they are potentially poisonous.
Look for third party certifications that vet sustainable, eco-friendly products in every category. Non GMO Project verified, Fair trade certified, USDA organic, and Environmental Working Group (EWG) Verified, B-Corp, Made Safe and Cradle to Cradle are good places to begin.
2. Get your fragrance radar on
Companies are legally allowed to hide anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of chemicals under the word fragrance or parfum on a product label, many of which may be linked to harmful health effects. Consider shopping with cosmetics brands that fully disclose their fragrance ingredients.
3. Safety first
When it comes to personal care products, you are particularly vulnerable to exposures, and they add up, incrementally, which each chemical laden product you use. Many products leave behind a chemical residue–termed the chemical body burden–that can be detected in blood, urine and breast milk. Check out apps like Clearya, Think Dirty and Skin Deep. Plus, certifiers like Made Safe and EWG Verified rate your personal care products for safety and toxicity.
4. Judge a product by its packaging
One way to gauge a product’s greenness is by the environmental impact the product will have throughout its life cycle. An item that’s manufactured, packaged and able to be disposed in an environmentally-friendly way is much more likely to be green than the alternative. Recyclable or compostable packaging is a promising indication that the company has a serious commitment to the environment.
5. Look beyond the leaves
Plenty of products try to signal, through subliminal suggestion, their empathy for the environment with green packaging, such as images of leaves and plants. Don’t be swayed by pretty graphics. Literal greenish packaging destined for landfill is still landfill.
6. Do your research
Do your research and look for authenticity. Investigate if a company’s green agenda lines up with their brand image. Be skeptical: Companies are champions of selective disclosure. They highlight positive environmental facts about their products while intentionally avoiding any mention of questionable practices.
7. Consider it an investment
Spending more on bona fide sustainable products represents an investment in the future, your health, and the planet. To shop with brands that don’t greenwash, you often pay a premium for clean ingredients that are responsibly packaged.
Bonus checklist for buying green:
- Products are manufactured sustainably
- Items arrive with minimal packaging
- Ingredient deck is free of toxins
- Able to be recycled or made from recycled materials
- Made with biodegradable materials
- The company offers an end-of-life program for its products such as a recycling program