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Greenwashing 101: How to tell if a product that claims to be eco-friendly really is

Experts share how to tell whether an item is sustainably made or if the label is simply "greenwashing."
/ Source: TMRW

In April, Teresa Anderson, a climate policy coordinator at Action Aid International, was sent two photos that she found so ridiculously hypocritical, she knew she needed to tweet them.

In the first photo, a product is packaged in a bottle that includes the label, "Hello, I'm Paper Bottle." In the second photo, the paper was peeled back to reveal it was simply covering up what appeared to be a plastic bottle.

"Hello! I'm a #NetZero climate target," Anderson wrote, in the voice of the same bottle that had declared it was made of paper before its secret was revealed.

Anderson's tweet struck a nerve on Twitter, where it racked up more than 51,000 likes and more than 6,800 retweets. While perhaps an extreme case, the bottle is an example of greenwashing, a term that has been coined to describe how companies market to eco-conscious consumers with flashy messages, but on closer examination, fail to live up their hype.

"We need to realize that our wish to go greener is sometimes used cynically by companies to pretend that they are the solution and to sell more products, even though that isn't the solution or the role," Anderson told TMRW.

Plastic containers and packaging amounted for more than 14.5 million tons of waste in 2018, the most recent year with available data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Some companies are choosing to reinvent household products in more sustainable forms, from shampoo bars to toothpaste tablets, cutting out the need for plastic packaging. But others only appear to do for customer goodwill.

"We need to realize that our wish to go greener is sometimes used cynically by companies to pretend that they are the solution and to sell more products, even though that isn't the solution or the role."

Teresa Anderson

Matt Rosenbaum, co-founder of Generation Conscious, a sustainable laundry and cleaning company that currently offers detergent sheet kiosks on college campuses, said the first question he asks when shopping for a product is whether the packaging is reusable or just a one-time use.

"The best way to avoid greenwashing is to look for circular solutions: things that make it convenient to reuse so you don't generate waste in the first place," he said.

Dr. Jeanine Stratton, a behavioral scientist and associate professor of business and accounting at Furman University who has studied greenwashing, urged anyone who is curious about the claims made by a product to do their homework.

"Misleading claims are often subtle. Carefully look at the claim and evidence of an authentic third party verification, for example, claims of 'organic' on food products must be substantiated by the organization approving the use of the term and a consumer should be able to find that on label," she said. "However, some labels look authentic when they are not."

Stratton said regulatory bodies are a great place to look for verification of claims being made on a product. She added that claims of false advertising can be reported to the Federal Trade Commission.

While it may feel overwhelming to navigate the constant flood of new products on the market that say they're eco-friendly, Stratton said people can also start small by focusing on a few items that are most important to them, reading the labels and researching the claims.

"You can build your familiarity with claims, research them and scale out to other items. It could be that some items are 'green-er' than counterparts, or perhaps more 'green-ish,'" she said.

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