By, Irina Webb. The other day I was invited to a breakfast meeting that included a so-called “green products” sales representative – from a company that shall remain nameless – introducing cleaning products to a group of green-minded, intelligent, very well-intentioned women. The sales representative declared her company’s products to be non-toxic and the women accepted that statement without questioning. They did not even blink when the sales representative said that the dish soap was “natural.” Did they know that “natural” is a marketing term? Was I observing the act of “greenwashing” first-hand?
What is “Greenwashing?”
“Greenwashing” is a relatively new term meaning essentially a brainwashing of people to trick them into thinking that they are buying green, non-toxic, and safe products.
So I asked the sales woman what surfactants were used in the soap she was selling. A couple women turned their heads and inquired whether I was a scientist. I did not want to steal the show, so I left as everyone began to pull out their credit cards to purchase products they assumed were non-toxic.
The Techniques of “Greenwashing”
I have kept my silence for the most part until now. Let’s talk about the techniques of “greenwashing.”
No, I am not a scientist. I am somebody who has worked relentlessly deciphering the maze of consumer product ingredients. I have not learned everything, but what I have learned is the critical importance of asking questions most companies do not want to answer. Now, when I hear words like “non-toxic,” “natural,” “organic,” “hypoallergenic,” “baby mild,” “gentle,” and “pure,” my initial reaction is to look for the list of the product’s ingredients, because those terms are not defined by law or regulated by anybody with the possible exception of the word “organic.”
Only recently have the same organic standards that apply to food been applied to cosmetics, personal care products, and cleaning products. (However, if it says “organic” or “organics” on a label, always make sure that there is a USDA Organic seal. Nobody can prevent a company from describing its products as “organic” without seeking an organic certification to back it up.)
The other terms listed above (non-toxic, gentle, plant-based, etc.) are purely marketing terms manufacturers use to sell their products. So please do not pay attention to these words. If you buy a product based on marketing terms on the front label, without critically reading the back, you have succumbed to “greenwashing.”
Another way some companies might engage in greenwashing is by emphasizing that certain harmful chemicals are not in their products. You have probably seen claims such as “no parabens,” “no sulfates,” “1,4-dioxane-free,” “no formaldehyde,” “chlorine-free” many times. And I agree that it is good to know that these bad chemicals are not in the products. But it is even better to know what is in them. I encourage you to read past “no” and “–free” statements. Instead, read the actual ingredients; you might be surprised unpleasantly. The products that do not contain sodium lauryl sulfate (a synthetic cleanser that might cause skin irritation) might have a different but equally unpleasant cleanser, such as cocamidopropyl betaine. What might often happen (I experienced it myself) is that we feel enough trust toward the company for the extra disclosure and we do not feel that it is necessary to look beyond. So shake off that feeling of trust, read the ingredients, and do not succumb to “greenwashing.”
Further, some companies employ another greenwashing technique – they emphasize that their product ingredients are plant-derived or plant-based. Have you thought what that might mean? Not always, but often, it means that there was a plant ingredient to start with that was reacted with some chemical to produce the ingredient in your product. For example, there are a number of synthetic cleansers that are coconut-based. Even cocamidopropyl betaine, the one that was nominated Allergen of the Year in 2004, is also considered coconut-based (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18627690).
Let’s just ask ourselves, “How did the coconut become this chemical with a fancy long name of cocamidopropyl betaine? Was the coconut squeezed really hard to get the juice out and that juice is called cocamidopropyl betaine?” Of course, the answer is no. The truth is that cocamidopropyl betaine is produced from coconut oil that is reacted with dimethylaminopropylamine, a dermal allergen. I personally do not care that coconut oil was once there. I am concerned about the allergic properties of dimethylaminopropylamine and the fact that some small but potent amount of it might remain in the cocamidopropyl betaine that I will apply to my skin several times a day (http://www.cosmeticsinfo.org/ingredient_details.php?ingredient_id=222).
How Not to Succumb to Greenwashing Ways
So when you shop, read labels and ask questions. Check databases such as Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.
Sorry for bombarding you with all these unpronounceable chemical words. Sadly, the women at the power breakfast were kind of right. You almost need to be a chemist to deconstruct your dish soap ingredients. It almost feels that these manufacturers are watching you around the corner (and no, I am not paranoid, much) and as soon as they see you understood their fancy ingredient, they throw something else at you.
Here is an example. Let’s go back to our friends at the company that shall remain nameless. Guess what? Their dish soap contains cocamideopropyl betaine, not cocamidopropyl betaine. Did you notice the difference? Probably not; the difference is in one letter. What should I think here? Is this simply a typo? Is it the same chemical by a slightly different name? Is this the way of saying “cocamidopropyl betaine” in a different language? Or is it a totally different chemical that is naturally derived, safe, and organic? I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that if it isn’t a totally different chemical that is naturally derived, safe, and organic, then anyone who buys the product thinking it safe has become part of greenwashing.
In conclusion, greenwashing can happen. That company that shall remain nameless, by the way, does not disclose the ingredients of their cleaning products. Don’t you think they would be proud to trumpet the ingredients if they were actually safe? They probably don’t feel that they need to because people will simply trust them to do the right thing.
Be vigilant. Read ingredients. Ask questions. And if you don’t get the right answers, move on.
This article was originally published on www.ireadlabelsforyou.com. Irina Webb, Was I Observing the Act of Greenwashing. © Irina Webb. It is reprinted here by permission.
For more information and resources:
Environmental Working Group: http://www.ewg.org/
Cosmetics Info: http://www.cosmeticsinfo.org
US National Library of Medicine: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/
Irina Webb is an enthusiastic new MOMAS volunteer. Irina Webb researches and publishes a wealth of free information on methods and products people can use to reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals. She started her blog, www.ireadlabelsforyou.com, when she learned of the lack of non-toxic baby products and the lack of regulations governing them. She also privately consults with expectant mothers to help them put together nontoxic baby registries, and with anyone wishing to reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals.