Are They Greenwashing? How to Decipher a Brand's Sustainability Claims

By Marilee Nelson |

Are They Greenwashing? How to Decipher a Brand's Sustainability Claims

You’ve probably heard the term “greenwashing” before. It refers to marketing efforts by companies who want their products to appear more natural, safe, and sustainable than they really are.  Unfortunately, the definition of “green” is usually self-defined, and there is no clear-cut understanding of what this term means! 

Simply because a company sells a product that is touted to be sustainable, green and safe, it may not be. We must become educated.

Sustainability Versus Human Health

Greenwashing is extremely common due to the growing awareness about how industry, petroleum products (including plastics), and chemicals impact the environment. The term sustainability is oriented to describing a product’s environmental impact, not its human safety.

Unfortunately, there is confusion. Just as the Green Building Movement’s primary focus is on energy savings, not health, most people link the two together.  So also, sustainability has become the buzzword that people equate with safety!  This greenwashing confusion sells products!  This is especially rampant in the cleaning and laundry products business as sustainability has come to the forefront in the marketplace. We must come to understand that a sustainable product is not necessarily human safe. We started Branch Basics to showcase the need for products that embrace sustainability but truly prioritize human health. 

If you’re new to the health and sustainability movement, it can be hard to decipher a truly sustainable and human-safe product from one that is not. Even if you’ve been in this space for a while it can be easy to be deceived!

Fortunately, the prevalence of greenwashing has actually made it easier to spot if you know what to look out for. 

In this article, you’ll learn about the history and common practices of greenwashing, why product sustainability is not enough, and 5 ways to spot a greenwashed product vs. an authentically safe and sustainable one.

A Brief History of Greenwashing

The term “greenwashing” was coined in 1986, by environmentalist Jay Westerveld. He first observed the phenomenon while visiting a resort in Fiji, where the resort asked guests to reuse their towels in order to help them protect the reefs and conserve water.

However, it occurred to him that if the hotel really cared about the environment, they wouldn’t be expanding their operation by building more bungalows directly on the beach. Hence, he wrote a famous essay on the topic in which he coined the term “greenwashing”. 

The concept has been applied by many high-profile companies to create the illusion of environmental stewardship. Some of the most infamous examples are ads run by oil, timber, tech, and pesticide companies, touting them as stewards of the land.

However, greenwashing is also extensively used throughout the nuclear power, building, plastic, bottled water, pharmaceutical, agriculture, fashion, travel, hospitality, beauty, and natural products industries (to name but a few). 

Sometimes these marketing ploys are subtle. Such as including the term “water-based” on a can of paint that contains dozens of harmful chemicals.

Other times they’re more bold. Like dish detergent ads showing how their product helps clean up wildlife after oil spills… when those same detergents contain petroleum-based chemicals that pollute waterways and kill aquatic life.

That said, greenwashing isn’t always intentional. 

Sometimes, companies really do believe they’re making more safe and sustainable products than their competitors.

Unfortunately, any type of greenwashing undermines environmental and human health initiatives that could make a real difference. 

For an in-depth history of greenwashing, check out The Guardian's The Troubling Evolution of Corporate Greenwashing.
We also recommend reviewing Sins of Greenwashing, developed by TerraChoice in 2007.

Why Greenwashing is Harmful to Brands & Customers 

Obviously greenwashing is harmful to environmental protection efforts. But there’s more to it than that. 

Greenwashing also undermines human health, by leading people to believe they’re buying a safer product… which is often not the case. It is no wonder that the consumer is confused!

In addition, it erodes consumer confidence in products and even entire industries. 

This is unfortunate, because upstanding, environmentally responsible companies wind up having their reputation sullied by the greenwashers.

Ultimately, greenwashing winds up funneling more money into environmentally irresponsible companies while eroding consumer trust. Which makes it harder for the truly healthy and sustainable brands to make a difference and reach more people.

How to Spot Greenwashing: 5 Red Flags 

The good news about greenwashing is, despite the millions spent on this deceptive marketing, it’s actually pretty easy to spot. You just need to know what to look for and stick with the brands you’ve vetted and trust.

Here are 5 universal red flags to watch out for.

1. Buzzwords & Broad Statements

Eco buzzwords may be used by marketers and advertisers to make a product look cleaner and greener than it is.

  • “Made with natural ingredients”
  • “Contains plant-based ingredients”
  • “Vegan”
  • “From nature”
  • “Contains organic ingredients”
  • “All natural”
  • “XYZ% plant-derived”
  • “Green”
  • “Environmentally-responsible”
  • “Mineral-based”
  • “Water-based”
  • “Plant-based”
  • “Contains no animal products”
  • “Not tested on animals”
  • “Responsibly sourced”
  • “Cruelty-free”
  • “Fair trade”
  • “Tested for purity”
  • “Non-toxic”
  • “Pure”
  • “A blend of nature and science”
  • “No GMOs”
  • “Sourced from nature”
  • “Sustainable”
  • “Biodegradable”

Careful vetting of ingredients is key to make sure all claims are correct! 

Unfortunately, many of these terms alone don’t mean anything unless they’re associated with a legitimate third-party certification. And since there’s little regulation around what a brand can say, labeling can be very deceiving.

2. Lack of Proof 

If a product makes a statement like “tested for purity”, “fair trade”, or “Non-GMO” for example, they should provide proof from a third-party certification.

For example, a natural food that claims it contains no genetically modified ingredients (GMOs) should also include an official seal from the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit that verifies the presence of GMOs in the food industry.

Same goes for claims like “non-toxic”, “tested for purity”, and “cruelty-free”. All these claims should include a seal certifying that the product has been tested and verified by a third-party.

On Branch Basics’ products, for example, you’ll notice proof of the following:

  • Our products carry the MADE SAFE® seal, the most comprehensive safety standard available, which certifies they are made without 5,000+ toxic chemicals known to harm human and environmental health.
  • EWG Verified seal, which means a product has been vetted by the Environmental Working Group as being free from harmful chemicals on EWG’s “unacceptable list”, meets EWG’s standards for ingredient disclosure on the label, provide full transparency to EWG, including fragrance ingredients, and that we use GMP (good manufacturing practices) to further ensure the safety of our products.
  • The Cruelty-Free seal (the hopping bunny), ensures our products are never tested on animals
  • Independent third party testing that verifies our formula is not a skin or eye irritant.

Learn more in: How We Are Leading the Industry in End-Product Testing.

3. Images of Nature

A picture is worth a thousand words. Which is why lots of brands employ the use of nature photos on their less-than-natural products.

This is a really clever trick, because many of us buy with our eyes. However, nature photos or graphics have nothing to do with the ingredients inside a product. So always check the label.

4. False Labels 

Some companies will go so far as to make up certifications and official-looking seals/badges that don’t exist. And yes, they get away with it.

To avoid being tricked, become familiar with the real third-parties, industry watch-dogs, and nonprofits that verify different products.

5. Hidden Trade-Offs

This is one of the most common forms of greenwashing. And it’s tricky because it’s a way for companies to make themselves appear very green based on limited environmental attributes, while minimizing all the ways their product or service is harming people and the planet.

We already gave the example of the dish detergent ads, but another example is when a plastic product claims to be “BPA-free”. The word is out that this means a regrettable substitution has been made with other bisphenol based chemicals like BPS, BPF, and BPAF which are proving to be even more harmful than BPA.  

Same goes for chemically-based cleaning products that use the hype “made with natural vinegar” or “made with essential oils” as the calling card to attract health conscious consumers. Or a chemical company that spends millions of dollars advertising how many acres of forests or oceans they’ve helped preserve (never mind how many ecosystems they’ve destroyed).

You get the idea.

How to Avoid Greenwash Marketing as a Consumer 

As you can see, greenwashing is everywhere. However, now that you’re more aware of it, this puts you in a position of strength!  You are empowered to quickly to identify suspicious products and services. 

Look at the Big Picture 

Remember, human health should be our first priority when choosing products to use in our homes. If a company touts its products as sustainable, don’t just assume it is human safe.  In fact, this could be a suspicious red flag that the company prioritizes sustainability over human health. Once again our easy vetting procedure can confirm a product’s safety.  

Stay Conscious of Legitimate Certifications

We mentioned a few of these earlier, but some  to be aware of include:

  • USDA certified organic
  • LEED certification
  • B-Corp certification
  • EWG-verified
  • Non-GMO Verified
  • Cruelty-free
  • Certified Humane
  • Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC-certified)

For a more comprehensive list, check out this article from Small Business Trends. 

Do Your Research 

It is worth taking a few minutes to research a new brand before you buy. And thanks to technology, this need not take much time.

A quick visit to a company’s website can tell you a lot about their values and how their products are made. In addition, sites like EWG provide helpful tools and apps for vetting new products.

Also, we make it a point to follow different like-minded health-conscious influencers to learn about their trusted products and services.

Learn more in 3 Tools You Need To Become Your Own Product Advocate.

Look for Sustainable Packaging 

In our experience, companies who are truly committed to the environment let that commitment trickle down to their packaging.

This could include using recycled materials, plant-based inks, biodegradable packing supplies, reusable containers, paperless transactions, etc.

Choose Companies That Value Transparency 

Trust is built on transparency, and the same thing goes for products and services we use in our homes.

How can you tell if a company is being transparent? Ask the following questions:

  • Do they have a specific and actionable mission? 
  • How do they act on that mission?
  • Are they open and detailed about the ingredients in their products and how they are sourced? 
  • Do they provide proof of their green claims?
  • Do they respond to questions on their social media posts?
  • Are there any irrelevant claims on their site? 
  • Are they open about their donations? 
  • How do they take care of their employees?
  • Who are the founders? And can I get to know them via an interview, article, etc?

These are just a few of the ways you can tell if a company is interested in transparency.

Final Takeaways 

Yes, greenwashing is insidious throughout the consumer products industry. However, the more people become aware of it and vote with their dollars to avoid it, the less pervasive it will become.

In this spirit, we encourage you to share what you’ve learned with as many people as possible and vote with your dollars! After all, we are most powerful in numbers.

To learn more about choosing healthier and safer products for your home and the planet, check out our Wellness Center Blog.

Marilee Nelson

Marilee Nelson

Marilee Nelson is an Environmental Toxins expert who has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the chemically-sensitive and chronically-ill. She is a Board Certified Nutritionist, Certified Bau-Biologist and Bau-Biology Inspector and specializes in Food As Medicine. She has helped thousands of families and individuals identify, heal and recover from toxic exposures and is on a mission to revolutionize the way American families view their health.