Eco-friendly, Environmentally-friendly, Sustainable, Recyclable, Non-toxic, Cruelty-free, All-natural, Biodegradable.
At best, these terms are vague. But even “cruelty-free” is not a regulated term. In other words, any company can claim to be cruelty-free. According to the FDA, “The unrestricted use of these phrases by cosmetic companies is possible because there are no legal definitions for these terms” (FDA.gov). Side note: we recommend looking for the Leaping Bunny certification for cruelty-free products.
Unfortunately, the same idea carries over to “environmentally friendly” products. This is also a largely unregulated term in the U.S. and might not include how the product was manufactured. The FDA does not regulate the “non-toxic” label, either.
When something is described as biodegradable, even compostable, that’s extremely broad. Most materials will eventually biodegrade, but how long will it take? Will it be safe for the environment when it breaks down? Many biodegradable products release methane as they break down. If these items are contributed to landfill, they can actually do more harm than good.
For items labeled “compostable,” where are they compostable? Can I throw them in my backyard compost pile or does it have to be processed under certain conditions in a commercial compost facility? Do I have access to that facility? Unfortunately, the answer is often “no.”
Consider yourself a zero waste detective, uncovering the truth behind a company’s labels. Are they trying to dupe their customers with greenwashing? I have found that companies that are truly trying to do the right thing are very transparent about their sources, materials and manufacturing information. If that information is hard to find, I consider that a red flag.
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?) is zero waste California certified, which I just made up right now, and has no meaning.
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.
Sources: FDA.gov, Science Daily, NCSU.edu