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When I first heard of the term green washing I thought it meant cleaning in an eco friendly way, lol! I couldn’t have been any more wrong. We are constantly seeing new and improved products each day and those of us who try to do their best to support environmentally conscious business practices will try to spot items that fall in line with those priorities. However, many products are under the guise of supporting the planet’s health when in reality they are no different from any other product that utilizes single use plastic and/or finite resources. 

According to a peer reviewed article titled, Grey zone in – greenwash out. A review of greenwashing research and implications for the voluntary-mandatory transition of CSR, green washing refers to “organizations that have been accused of “not walking the talk,” which means their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) claims on environmental or social issues have not been followed or supported by actual corporate activities (Walker & Wan, 2012).” Green washing is a term that originated from environmentalist Jay Westerveld in the 1980s when he dissected the disconnect between hotels and their apparent efforts to save water consumption via towel washing. Labeled as the “save the towel” movement, hotels urged guests to help save water by indicating to housekeepers which towels to wash and which towels could stay. Westerveld noted the irony of hotels claiming to do their part when their waste consumption in no way is offset by decreasing towel washes. He saw “saving the towels” was actually just a way for hotels to save money on their washing costs. This narrative by Westerveld gave a lasting term to describe consumer’s gullibility about eco conscious practices in a time where fact checking wasn’t as easily accessible. 

Today, brands are all too familiar with accountability and backing their claims and statements in their products. However, even with the help of the internet and social media, many of us can still fall victim to greenwashing without realizing it. For the majority of us who own smartphones and have access to the internet on the go, doing some research into a business or product is an easy feat. However, what is one exactly supposed to research? It can be overwhelming, but here are a few tips to help get you started in weeding out greenwashed businesses and products.

Thoughtful Packaging

This doesn’t require much mental work if you’re buying something in person. If a product claims to be eco conscious, but the packaging is single use plastic, that is a clear sign of greenwashing. Although the product itself may be using sustainable resources, their packaging doesn’t practice any low or zero waste options to justify purchasing their “eco conscious” item. Think of it like a company claiming a product is free but you have to pay for the packaging in order to get the free item. Although there is such a thing as post consumer recycled plastic, I personally am always on the look out for plastic free/zero waste options. There are dozens of examples of greenwashed packaging, you just need to be on the lookout for them. Easy spots are items that are colored green and use words like “clean” or “organic” but offers no consumer solutions to reducing single use waste. Defer to your best judgement and when it doubt, refrain from purchasing it before you’ve had time to do some research.

Business Model and Mission

Doing a quick internet search of a brand you like or want to try will yield endless results of reviews, information, and advertisements. To truly find out how green a company is, visit their website and do some sleuthing. Most zero or low waste businesses will capitalize on this and will say whether they are plastic free, vegan, cruelty free etc. Zerra & Co. is a small beauty and skincare business from Maryland. Their site lists off their sustainable practices in each product description as well as in their bio. Not only are their products made using vegan friendly ingredients, they also offer a “Container Return Program.” Once you’ve finished your product you have the ability to send back the container that it came in for a refill. This is a classic practice many zero waste businesses take part in. Look out for what a business’s priorities are (do they use sustainable packaging, are they cruelty free, etc). These are the tell tale signs of whether or not they greenwash their products.

Ingredients

I’m no chemistry whiz, so reading ingredient labels is almost like reading a foreign language. Greenwashed items will claim eco friendliness but will have a lengthy ingredient list filled with words we can hardly pronounce. When a list is short and contains ingredients we are familiar with, you have a better chance of making a sustainable choice over a green washed one. River Organics has zero waste lip balms that not only come in plastic free packaging but contains a short list of ingredients that even I can understand, thus making a purchase less of a confusion and more of an affirmation that I am making an eco conscious choice. I am not saying to avoid every product with lots of odd sounding  ingredients, that’s a fool’s errand in my honest opinion, but it would do you good to research each component to ensure it isn’t a finite resource.

As with anybody’s zero waste journey, it’s a slow process that requires trial and error of finding products that work for you and the environment. It’s not an all or nothing lifestyle, but an imperfect one that will contain zero waste and non zero waste products throughout. The important thing is to make the effort to be mindful. Making an effort already is a step forward. Finding low or zero waste products is easier once you know what you’re looking for, so avoid being fooled by greenwashing practices and make smart decisions throughout your day. Your efforts will benefit not only you, but the planet as well.

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