Is every “green” company greenwashing? Sometimes it seems that way. How can a store truly be “zero waste?” Is every company pretending to be sustainable in order to profit off those who are trying to make a difference?
These are questions I personally ask myself, and from looking at the comments in zero waste threads, it appears that I’m not the only one.
So how can we tell if a company is greenwashing or not?
First of all, what is “greenwashing?”
Greenwashing is the idea that a company or service pretends to be environmentally-friendly, or green, when in reality, they are not.
Let’s go with an easy example:
Seventh Generation produces a bottle of laundry detergent that appears to be packaged in a cardboard-like material.
According to their website, “The shell is 100 percent recycled, made from 70 percent cardboard and 30 percent newspaper. Using paper for the bulk of the container results in Seventh Generation using 66 percent less plastic per bottle than most 100-ounce laundry detergent bottles.”
Two things stand out to me. Firstly, they were very specific in clarifying that the “shell” is recycled paper.
So, what’s inside the bottle?
I’ll give you a clue: it’s plastic.
Oh whoops, I just gave you the answer.
Anyway, yeah, it’s plastic.
So it’s plastic wrapped in recycled paper. Why? To give the consumer the feeling that this product is more environmentally friendly, basically just because we can’t see the plastic.
The second thing that stands out is their comparison, that this paper bottle results in using 66% less plastic than “most” 100-ounce laundry detergent bottles. Well, based on experience, laundry bottles are 100% plastic, so this is only 33% less plastic than the standard bottle? And that’s something to celebrate?
That’s not nearly enough.
Let’s put it another way.
What if the Coca Cola tap water brand Dasani started packaging their water in recycled cardboard. Great, right? Only you read the fine print and discover that, no, they’re still using plastic, just a little less (like 33% less). So, you’re still drinking a plastic bottle. It’s just flimsier, and hidden under a paper wrapper – like an environmentally friendly trench coat. Only once it’s opened, it reveals stolen Rolex watches. Or worse. You know where I’m going with that…
So that’s greenwashing. And I’m sorry to single out Seventh Generation. Compared to many other companies, they do appear to be trying to make a difference on some level. But trying and doing are two different things. If the cost of recycled plastic is too much to pass onto the consumer, WE MUST FIND A MORE SUSTAINABLE MATERIAL.
Or another thought, instead of needing new bottles at all, these companies should just set up refill stations in stores for consumers to fill their own bottles and pay by weight. The machine automatically tares the consumer’s bottle when placed on the scale, it measures the amount of product dispensed, prints a ticket on biodegradable paper with plant-based ink (because normal receipts and grocery stickers are NOT recyclable or biodegradable, that the consumer sticks on the bottle, and wow…. Is that really that difficult?
Assistance, of course, must be provided for customers who have difficulty with any aspect of this procedure. These changes are never meant to exclude those with disabilities, we must make changes with everyone in mind, and do our best to accommodate those with specific needs. I think if this idea grew nationally, to the point that every Walmart, Target, major grocery store chain etc., across the country was full of refill stations we could even implement refill delivery services like fillgood.co. Why not? You can have Domino’s delivered in 27 seconds from an app. Why not the things we actually need?
One issue with the idea of refill stores is purely the lack of aesthetics. There’s admittedly a certain excitement in seeing new products and alluring packaging. Markterters will attest to the strong influence of packaging. It really does make a difference. It makes the product fun.
So if we eliminate packaging, how do we make the buying process exciting?
Related tangent: PEOPLE LOVE PODS.
I think people like to squeeze them and people like to say “pod.” I really think that’s it. If they clean just as effectively as liquid detergent…. Why? Because people think they’re cute. Some companies claim they have come up with an environmentally-safe pod. Awesome, make them dispensable, too. Have them making an automated “plopping” sound when they come out of the machine, it would be adorable.
So that could be part of it. Go with the Japanese approach. If you’ve ever visited Japan, you know how animated their machines are, from vending machines to train ticket dispensers. They play music, greet you, have cute cartoon images that make you feel less nervous about being a foreigner using the machine for the first time. Thank you, small singing grapefruit, for guiding me through my first ticket buying process. I’ll never forget you.
Another part could be cost. Since companies are paying less, or now ideally nothing, for packaging, they could pass those savings onto the consumer. That would be a huge incentive to me, way more than a singing cartoon grapefruit. If I was saving $20 per grocery trip, or more, that’s motivation enough to bring my own containers.
One of the biggest arguments against these types of changes is that this will still require energy, a lot of it, and that comes from burning coal.
I know. We need to change that. Urgently.
We must switch to renewable energy immediately. Just as California has been phasing out single-use plastic, we need to cut off the source: fossil fuels.
Some people don’t think this is possible. And perhaps in every single instance, it’s not. But to say it’s “impossible” to switch over to a different energy source on a global level means you didn’t pay very close attention in history class.
Humans have done this repeatedly. We are innovative. That’s kind of our thing
There are a few tricks you can use to ascertain the legitimacy of a company. First, who owns the company? Burt’s Bees is owned by Burt, right? Actually it was bought by Clorox. Yes, the bleach company. They bought it in 2007 for a reported $925 million USD.
And Smartwater, Simply Orange, Odwalla, Fuze, Vitamin Water and many other brands are owned by Coca Cola.
So do your research and read the label. If a company claims to use less plastic, what do they mean? Less plastic compared to what? Where is the plastic sourced? Was it post consumer recycled? Or are they still using virgin plastic, just less of it, compared to other brands.
Don’t be duped by eco-keywords like: all-natural, natural, ‘certified green,’ environmentally-friendly, earth-friendly, chemical-free, non-toxic, bio or, yep, even “eco” itself. These words have almost no meaning, and should be a red-flag to dig deeper.
Let’s tackle each word.
All-natural/Natural: what the heck does that even mean? There is no standard for this label. Anything call itself all-natural. I’ve seen hair dyes labeled as all-natural. I read the ingredients, and let me just say, no. Just, no.
This is like defining a person as normal. What is normal? Normal compared to what? For something to be TRULY natural, in my opinion, you have to be able to walk into the forest and gather all the ingredients off the floor in less than an hour. There, now there’s a standard.
Certified Green: This is probably my favorite b.s. label, ever. Because there is no such thing as a green certificate. There is no recognized green organization going around to all these brands you found on amazon, passing out green certificates in broken English.
I can also make an official looking seal that has no meaning.
In fact, I’ll make one right now.
There. Now you know anything with this seal (hah, get it?) has is zero waste California certified, which I just made up right now, and that means… things. Like that we’re friendly to seals.
Who even knows, right? What does it mean to be green certified. Google it, there’s no clear definition except for real estate:
This is unlike actual recognized labels, like USDA organic. To have this label, you have to be approved by an accredited organization. You can’t just paste the label onto your product. That would be illegal.
In fact, according to USDA.gov, “Falsely representing products as certified USDA organic violates the law and federal organic regulations. Using fraudulent documents to market, label, or sell non-organic agricultural products as organic is punishable by fines of up to $17,952 for each violation” (Source).
Environmentally-Friendly/Earth-Friendly: Like the above, there is no standardization for this to have any merit. Any company can say this about any product without legal recourse. Clorox could argue that bleach is environmentally friendly because it purifies water.
Being friendly to someone doesn’t mean you’re good to them. People can be friendly when they want something from someone. You can also be friendly to people you don’t necessarily like, but you put up with, because they make your mom happy. My point is, this is a meaningless label. Don’t fall for it.
Chemical-Free: You’re made of chemicals. I’m made of chemicals. Water is a chemical. Everything is a chemical. Are they selling… nothing? Perhaps in the vacuum of space there are no chemicals. But otherwise, trust me, that product has chemicals. So they’re either seriously misinformed, or they’re lying. Hmph.
Non-toxic: This is my least favorite label because I believe it’s the most dangerous. Nothing is non-toxic. Let me repeat that, NOTHING IS NON-TOXIC. Everything in excess is poison. Even water. There’s even a term for it, hyper hydration, or water poisoning. Oxygen? Yes. In excess, oxygen will kill you, also. So nothing is non-toxic. Somethings are just more toxic than others.
What scares me the most with this label is seeing people using sharpies to decorate their kid’s lunches. Like drawing jack-o-lanterns on their oranges. Many of these markers contain ethanol and xylene, which can cause nervous system and organ damage.
If you’ve ever had an IV bag in the hospital, you’ll notice the nurses won’t write directly on the bag with sharpie, they will write on a sticker and place that on a bag. When I asked them why, they said because the sharpie ink leaches into the bag. But it’s non-toxic, right? So who cares?
I cared. I was really glad they took that precaution.
Eco/Bio another common set of keywords used in greenwashed products. They have no meaning, they are based on anything, and should only indicate to the consumer that they need to pay closer attention to what they’re purchasing.
So if you see these labels, look closer and dig deeper. You have your phone on you, google the company, see what they’re all about. See what other’s have to say. There are so many sustainability groups that have already had experiences with specific products that will be able to answer your questions honestly.
Don’t be duped. You’re smarter than that.