Are you being Greenwashed?

As a consumer how do you know if a product is falsely claiming to be ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘organic’?

You have probably noticed the words ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ slapped on the packaging of a lot of products these days, and maybe you even buy certain products because of these words.

While it is promising to see so many consumers wanting to take an environmentally-friendly approach to what they are buying – the reality is that businesses can be deliberately misleading you.

The word you need to become familiar with is ‘greenwashing’. This is when a company tries to appear more environmentally-friendly than it actually is by using false or unsubstantiated claims relating to the eco-credentials of a product or business.

As a consumer how do you know if a product is falsely claiming to be ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘organic’?

Well, firstly they should have some certification. If a product’s claims are legitimate, the business will most likely be transparent about it making proof easy to find (check out their website first!).

There are certain words used to market products that can lead consumers to make the wrong assumption – often without us even realising it. Think of how often you see the words 'natural', 'healthy', 'cruelty-free' and 'chemical-free'. These are just a few thrown around with reckless abandon.

The term ‘chemical-free’ is one that really grinds my gears (to quote Family Guy’s Peter Griffin), because it could not be further from the truth. We are full of chemicals, and so is literally everything around us.

The idea that chemicals are bad is due to fear-based marketing from the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness advice website and celebrity chef Pete Evans, who advertised a machine which will ‘save you from Covid-19.’ Please, someone save us from Pete Evans.

If you see a company touting its products as ‘chemical-free’ you can assume they are misinformed enough to believe that it is true. Or more disturbingly, they know it is not true but think that you, the dear consumer, might be stupid enough to fall for it. Neither one of those is a good option, so my advice is to steer clear.

Another term you might have made wrong assumptions about is ‘free-range’ eggs. Brands can use this term, and images of chickens gleefully running about in a luscious green paradise, on its cartons even if it is not the reality.

While the Animal Welfare Act states chickens must have access to an outdoor area, many only spending a small amount of time outside in an overcrowded space. Some brands are genuinely free-range, but how on earth can a consumer at the supermarket tell? You need to dig deeper.

Some products being touted as ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ have been stung by consumer commissions, set up to protect consumer rights, and forced to change wording on their ads and packaging. So at least that is a step in the right direction.

But unless you do your research, it can be hard to navigate all these marketing tactics. So here are a few ways to ensure you are buying and supporting businesses that uphold what they claim.

  • Be sceptical of buzzwords like ‘low-impact’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘biodegradable’ (a train is biodegradable if you wait long enough).
  • Find out what those visually appealing stamps and terms on the packaging actually mean. Some brands make their own stamps – they may have a reason for doing so, such as aesthetics and have it backed up with a proper certification – but make sure you check. Support the companies that align with your own and demonstrate the power of your choices in the consumer market.
  • See something packaged that’s marked as ‘compostable’? Look again. Is it compostable only in certain situations? Is it certified home compostable? Unfortunately, the compostable plastics market is a bit of joke, with most alternatives being anything but home compostable, so put your sceptical hat on for this one.
  • Read articles with a healthy dose of cynicism. Check their references and try to stick to sources that are recognised as reputable. Bonus tip: if you read it on, or, it is complete rubbish.
  • Vegan does not mean cruelty-free. Vegan means that you don't use or consume products made from animals or animal by-products. Unfortunately this doesn't necessarily mean that animals weren't hurt or tested on in the making of the product, unfortunately.
  • Learn how to actually read labels. While it can be annoying that they’re filled with scientific names for ingredients, it’s a legal requirement. But, once you figure out what you are looking for – or trying to avoid – you will become a superstar shopping detective.
  • Follow bloggers, Youtubers and Instagrammers that inspire you but don’t make you feel like a failure. Look at what they are promoting and check if it aligns with their values, or does it just makes them money (like those ridiculous ‘fat-burning’ teas).

Becoming a conscious consumer takes time and effort but it can be a very rewarding process. And by helping spread the word about some of these inside tips you can help others to start making more informed purchasing decisions.