How to spot Greenwashing
(and other deceptive marketing practices)
I’m sure you know those type of ads on TV: a happy family walking along a pristine beach laughing together and walking their dog, with an on-screen tagline such as, ‘XYZ brand cares for you and your planet so you can enjoy a better world’ – or some other guff like that.
Do yourself a favour the next time you see one of these soap opera-style ads – jump online and search for genuine third-party information about that company’s humanitarian and environmental track record and you might be surprised what that company really looks like and where their product actually comes from. It’s a sad fact that more often than not, the companies that advertise the most promising claims about their products, are the very culprits responsible for the most disastrous examples of major land clearing; destruction of precious habitat; pollution of pristine waterways; excessive use of precious natural resources; cruelty to animals; and producing their product via slavery.
This is what Greenwashing is: the practice of conveying an image of caring about our Earth and its people, while really not giving a sh@t when it comes down to it! A nasty, deceptive and immoral practice, to say the least – but then, marketing has been full of these types of tricks since its inception. It’s just that now we have the information at our fingertips to catch these companies out – but only if we take the time to smell the bullsh@t and investigate BEFORE we put more money in their pockets.
Greenwashing + Healthwashing = Deception
We liken this to Healthwashing (we’re not sure there is such a term, but now there is – you’re welcome!). A good example of this would be a gluten-free product where you flip the pack over and would be lucky to be able to pronounce the list of 20 ingredients on the back and can even sometimes find ingredients like maltodextrin or caramel-flavouring listed – both of which are typically derived FROM WHEAT! (unless otherwise indicated). Not only is this example deceptive, but downright dangerous for someone with coeliac disease.
Other examples of Healthwashing we’ve spotted, and we’re sure there would be a million more (which is why we pre-screen every product we sell in our online store for this type of behaviour so you don’t have to) include:
- A ‘natural’ deodorant which actually contains toxic ingredients like PEG (Polyethylene glycol) – but has SUCH a beautiful fresh scent, very clean and natural looking packaging and a nature-based brand name. So it has to be natural – right? Wrong.
- A laundry detergent boasting ‘Added Essential Oils’ which in fact only comprises 0.02% of the entire product, plus there isn’t even a complete list of ingredients to check through – only ‘Active Ingredients’ (avoid like ‘the plague’ is our advice!).
- Many breakfast cereals ‘fortified’ with iron, fibre and folate, earning themselves stellar government 4 health star ratings, but their ingredient lists actually list wheat, sugar and other unnatural and health-damaging ‘fillers’ as their main ingredients.
And the list goes on and on… and on.
There are ways you can protect yourself and your family.
Even nutritional grids explaining health benefits cannot be solely relied upon to safe-guard your health – YOU need to be your own detective when it comes to what goes into, on or around your body!
The short of it is, the only way to protect yourself from greenwashing, healthwashing or any other type of marketing ‘spin’ is to educate yourself on how ingredient labels work and learn to read the fine print that the marketers are hoping you won’t see. As a rule of thumb, ignore the front label and turn to the back of the pack for every product first! But sometimes even that isn’t enough to make an informed and safe decision – ingredients can have pseudo-names, proprietary names (e.g. canola oil is actually a registered variety of rapeseed oil), or additive numbers to ensure you don’t know what they really are.
One of our favourite resources for checking on ingredients in personal care products, cosmetics and cleaning products is to take each ingredient name and enter it into the Environmental Working Group (EWG) database. Yes, it can be time-consuming initially, but by doing this you can examine the scientific data (in layman’s terms) that already exists for each ingredient to determine whether it is likely to cause harm, or instead is safe for you and your family to use.
Another tip: once you’ve looked at the individual ingredients, make sure you look at the order in which the ingredients are listed. The higher up in the list the ingredient is, the more of it there is in the product. For example, if you see a product that claims to be coconut milk, but it’s first ingredient is water, then there is more water than coconut milk in the product (and you should put it down as it is instantly not what it seems to be – unless you like paying for water, packaging and freight!). The first three ingredients are generally what the product mostly contains, so if you don’t see the ingredient that is claimed to be the main ingredient in the first three, you can be sure you are again being deceived.
Pay attention to these product 'warning' signs
Some final advice we offer is about some words marketers just love, but you should be wary of (they are good ‘warning signs’):
- Natural – which just means at some point, the product started with SOMETHING natural in it (likely added in to ‘soften’ a horrible list of artificial ingredients);
- Organic – which really just means the product was made on Earth, since all life here is organic – aka carbon-based! (Certified organic is a very different deal, which you can read more about here);
- No Added Sugar – which typically means they didn’t have to add sugar since their ingredients were already SO high in sugar to begin with! Additionally, and sometimes even worse for you, it could mean that unhealthy and even dangerous sugar substitutes were used instead (search online for some of the most well-known brands of artificial sweeteners and you will be horrified – to the point where you will realise only whole food sugars are actually safe substitutes);
- Fortified – means that the vitamins, minerals or supplements advertised in the product were artifically added to it. Often this will mean it is a laboratory-derived or made source of that particular supplement and usually this will also mean that it isn’t bioavailable to the body anyway (unlike natural whole-food sources of those same vitamins or minerals);
- Gluten-free – as mentioned earlier, these can still sometimes include additives which contain gluten, such as: maltodextrin (usually from corn but can be from wheat so be sure to check); malt; glucose (can be derived from wheat, again check); Vitamin E / Tocopheryls (can be derived from wheat germ, again check the source); Natural Flavours (can be derived from barley making it not suitable for those with gluten-free diets); and Hydrolized Vegetable Protein (of course, if a product is Certified Gluten-free, that is a totally different deal – read more here about that).
And there are sadly so many more examples of this type of practice (in fact, we’ll keep adding to this article in future as we find examples – plus feel free to comment below with any you find, too, and we’ll add them in).
Whatever you do, don’t ignore that inner warning you feel in your gut. If something seems too good to be true, that’s because it usually is!
Your disbelief is the first step towards debunking any false claim and will ensure you don’t just trust a pretty label or the amazing claim that makes you feel less guilty for eating a whole box of your favourite snack food!
P.S. Our online store breaks down the credentials of everything we offer to give you some good guidance – shop there safely now! 😉