Cosmetics Q&A: Greenwashing - What is it and what should you watch for?

Be warned, this is a super long post because it's a topic I feel very strongly about. I've worked as a copywriter for a number of different eco-friendly organizations and all natural companies in addition to my more traditional clients. Greenwashing is a big issue that not everyone is really aware of and I want to do my part to spread awareness because it keeps popping up in my professional and personal life! Hope you find this informative ;)

Have you heard the term Greenwashing? If not, you're probably wondering what it is and why I'm warning you about it!

Greenwashing is the term used to describe the marketing tactic in which companies use certain catch-phrases, terms, etc. or convey the message that products are green, eco-friendly, natural, etc. in order to move consumers to purchase those products. You may be surprised to find that just because a product says it is eco-friendly or all natural on its packaging that it doesn't mean it is. False advertisement? Yes, in my book.

The problem is, a green movement has been spreading for years now. Consumers are becoming more informed and more conscientious when it comes to purchasing. As a result, major companies that product everyday products and sell those products in major chains are feeling the pressure and seizing the opportunity to sell to a broader audience by offering green products. The problem is, just because companies offer green or natural products (according to them) it doesn't mean they really are what they say they are.

Why go through all the trouble to claim to be green or natural? I've seen many surveys in which consumers were asked how often they purchase green or natural products. The options were:

1. I go out of my way and would pay more to purchase green.
2. If a product is comparably priced and readily available I will purchase green.
3. I don't care whether or not I purchase green.

Most people fall into the second answer. Many people don't want to or can't spend more on organic, green, or all natural products, especially in this economy and housing marketing. If they go to Target for shampoo and see that the brand they normally purchase or another recognizable brand has a new natural shampoo sitting next to the one they normally buy, priced at about the same rate, many people would grab the natural one thinking they're making a healthier purchase choice. Unfortunately, this may not be the case.

For example, there is one company that claims to be all natural and has a baby line. In their shampoo/baby wash they list Sodium Benzoate (most likely as the preservative). Unfortunately, sodium benzoate (while it does occur naturally in some fruits and other items) in commercial use is generally synthetic. Whenever I see a company using Sodium Benzoate rather than other natural preservatives (grapefruit seed oil, rosemary oil, lemongrass oil, sweet orange oil, etc.) I immediately suspect that it is synthetic because while Sodium Benzoate does occur in nature, it occurs in much smaller amounts than what is necessary to preserve cosmetic products. Or what about all of the lathering products that contain Sodium Lauryl Sulfate? While there is debate on exactly what harm it causes (some same it's a carcinogen and causes blindness and cancer while others simply say it's too strong a detergent for use on skin), it is clear that SLS is not something you want in your products. Unfortunately, it's synthetic and cheap so it's used in most of them. Even natural products will use SLS because it's derived from coconut oil. Sounds harmless right? Wrong! Unfortunately, SLS is typically synthetic and not something you want in your products.

How do you avoid Greenwashing? Go through ingredient labels with a fine tooth comb. If you don't know what an ingredient is, google it. I've become very familiar with a lot of ingredients (synthetic and natural) as a result of working in the cosmetics industry and trying to purchase as natural as possible for most of my life. However, I come across ingredients all the time that I'm not familiar with. Thank goodness for my DROID! I also look up ingredients online prior to purchasing if it's a brand new company I'm unfamiliar with. More often than not, if you don't know what an ingredient is (and the "common" name isn't listed in parentheses after the INCI term) it's probably synthetic. My rule for the ingredients for products for my kids is: If I can't buy it at the grocery store or natural food store as an individual ingredient, don't buy it. Meaning, if each individual ingredient isn't something that I can buy myself at a grocery store or natural food store, it's probably not something I want on their bodies! Now, that's just me. I'm not saying everyone has to choose to do this. It's really up to you and your preference, beliefs, etc. I tend to lean on the natural side more than the average person.

This is actually one of the reasons I go to such great lengths to make B.Koi products as natural as possible. While some synthetic ingredients have been unavoidable, in general I've been able to find natural alternatives. The biggest issue I run into is preservatives. Synthetic preservatives have a longer shelf-life in general. For some things that you won't use super quickly or that you don't spread in large amounts all over your body I've had to make compromises, but for the rest I've stuck to my guns. Liplure, where it goes on your lips, is one product I've refused to compromise on. I don't want to eat synthetic preservatives or ingredients, so Liplure is all natural right down to the preservatives.

Are you concerned about what you put on your body? Do a little test and grab your favorite shampoo, lotion, etc. Read the ingredients labels and look up a few of the ingredients you don't recognize. You may be surprised by what you find.

I know some sites can be super fanatical and claim there's antifreeze and motor oil in everything (not really, though I have heard similar claims), so it's important to do the research yourself if you're really concerned. I have one friend that is super, super "crunchy". She doesn't believe in any vaccination, uses completely natural products, believes in alternative medicines, etc. and she had some literature that claimed that different products contained super bizarre things. After going through the literature, I realized that some of it was true and then what the author did was claim that because the product was made of an ingredient that was also used to make something super toxic, they claimed it "contained the same ingredients as xyz toxic product". Well yes, they did include the same ingredient, but that ingredient in itself wasn't actually toxic and was super common. So while greenwashing is an issue, it's also important not to be snowed by people with the right motivations in mind but wrong information.

It's a constant process to weed through information and I spend a lot of time doing just that. Not everyone is as concerned and some people are even more concerned. I think it's best to find your balance, stay informed, and make an educated decision as to what risks you feel are legitimate and which you feel are all hype.

But just remember, marketing specialists are clever. Lots of time, money, and studies go into marketing. Just because it says "All Natural" or "Eco-friendly" doesn't mean it is!

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