Here are some tips on how to be a savvy shopper who consistently gets past the greenwashing.
Companies have caught on to the fact that going green means business. Everyone is jumping on the green bandwagon, making claims of being “all natural,” “non toxic,” and “eco-friendly” in hopes of attracting the attention of consumers. The problem is, these claims are often not authentic. There aren’t many regulations in terms of what companies can put on their packaging, which means that consumers have to use their own skills of critical assessment to determine whether or not a company is green for real. Here are some things to look for:
Watch for specific statements.
If an item has green-sounding phrases such as “natural” and “eco-friendly” without providing any further information, it’s probably not true. A company that has real relationships with certifiers such as organic, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Oeko-Tex, B Corp, etc. will make that loud and clear. They will sing their product’s virtues without hesitation and explain in considerable depth why and what they do.
Look for mission statements online.
A company’s mission statement can go a long ways toward revealing their true environmental intentions. Visit a website such as Patagonia’s, for example, and see how impressively different it is from most other clothing retailers. Patagonia lists the specific textile mills and sewing factories for every piece it sells, setting a high standard for transparency. This is different from other retailers, many of which have “environmental commitment” sections on their websites but actually say very little, when you examine them closely.
Assess the packaging.
This can be broken down into two parts: (1) How much packaging is there? (2) What’s it made of?
First, any company that sells its products with an excess of packaging isn’t paying enough attention to conservation of resources. It’s possible to sell most things with very little, or possibly no, disposable packaging at all, but the problem is it’s not quite as eye-catching for consumers that way.
For example, I was in the spice aisle at the supermarket and noted a large glass jar of saffron threads for $14. The jar was the same size as the other spices, all of which are much cheaper than saffron, so I immediately was suspicious. Upon closer examination, the saffron was actually contained in a tiny plastic container within the glass jar – a gross waste of packaging that’s enough to turn me off that particular brand.
Second, it’s important to read the fine print. Just because a paper cup has trees printed on it doesn’t mean it’s made from recycled paper. Read critically and note whether the packaging simply “contains” recycled materials (which could be a relatively small amount), or whether it’s made entirely from recycled materials.
Read (and understand) the list of ingredients.
This is the most revealing way to determine a company’s true green values, particularly when buying cosmetics or food. Read the ingredients carefully, taking a reference list (here's a handy printable one) with you to the store if you need help recognizing toxic ingredients.
Look in different places.
Mainstream supermarkets, pharmacies, and clothing retailers are accessible only to the biggest, most successful companies and brands, but there are plenty of great options out there if you’re willing to dig deeper.
Take references from friends and acquaintances who also care about the environmental integrity of products. Word of mouth is an excellent way to find out about companies that may be too small to market themselves widely but that make high-quality products. Search the Internet; visit local independent retailers and farmers’ markets; read books that provide sourcing information.