What is greenwashing?
Simply put, greenwashing is when companies put misleading information and labels on their products in order to appear more environmentally friendly. Why you may ask? Well, because it works to sell the product.
These companies count on people not having the time to properly research the product and the ingredients. People are in a hurry and usually only glance over the label briefly in order to make a decision and determine if it’s a better product. They know people look for certain buzzwords that sound nice.
This isn’t anything new. Greenwashing has been around since the 1980s; however, it has become more prevalent because people do want better, safer, and more eco-friendly products. To meet this demand, manufacturers are changing the packaging and putting more time and money into how the products look, rather than the actual ingredients. High quality, natural ingredients often cost more. So one of the ways companies keep cost down is by using cheaper synthetic ingredients and less natural ingredients.
So what’s happening is these companies are still using a pretty standard cosmetic formula, to keep costs down. They may add an ingredient or two that sounds good, but the focus is really on the packaging itself.
How can companies get away with misleading labels?
Believe it or not there is no legal definition or guidelines for using words like “natural” or “organic” when it comes to cosmetics. Food, however, does, and many people get confused and think the same regulations which apply to food also apply to cosmetics. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Companies can use the term natural or organic on the label when that’s really not the case.
The best way to explain this is with specific examples of real products you can find on the shelf that are labeled as natural.
Suave Professionals Almond+Shea Butter Moisturizing Shampoo
Suave has been around for many years, and they are a part of the larger Unilever corporation. This particular shampoo is a good example of greenwashing. The packaging is a nice green color, there are pictures of leaves and almonds, and the bottle advertises the product as being made with 100 percent Natural Almond & Shea Butter.
But, if you flip the bottle and read the ingredients, there’s an issue. Now, we know this is the part of the bottle people don’t have time to read, or if they do read it, they may not know what it means. For example, the second ingredient listed is sodium laureth sulfate or SLES. SLES is a detergent and a pretty harsh one at that. It’s what makes the product foam and is used widely in soaps, toothpaste, and for products in which you want a nice lather.
Because of its harsh nature it is a known skin irritant. But, what makes it even worse is that it can be contaminated by another chemical 1,4-dioxane, which has been classified by the EPA as very likely to cause cancer in humans.
The problem is Unilever has no policy on whether they test for 1,4-dioxane in their products. The consumer has no way of knowing of this shampoo has a carcinogen in it or not.
Did you know?
Cosmetic manufacturers are required to list their ingredients in order of concentration?
Another ingredient listed in this shampoo is dmdm hydantoin, which is a preservative to prevent bacterial growth. Now, preservatives are critical to a cosmetic formula. The consequences of not putting a preservative in the formula is significant and can cause major issues. However, there are many preservatives to choose from and companies aren’t limited to just dmdm hydantoin.
The significance of dmdm hydantoin lies within how it works. Over time it releases formaldehyde (another chemical which inhibits bacterial growth), and, as most of us know, formaldehyde is extremely dangerous to humans. Where the controversy gets specific, is how to know when the levels released are high enough to be toxic. Right now, the FDA says the levels are fine, but there are other studies which show that levels aren’t, especially considering some people wash their hair every day. Over time, it’s unknown whether or not it makes a difference. Therefore, it is questionable for dmdm hydantoin to be used in such products.
The other thing to consider in this formula is the fragrance. Fragrance is commonly used in the majority of cosmetic products, however, synthetic fragrances can be made up from nearly 3,000 different chemical combinations. Now, some of these are safe. But, others don’t have good safety profiles and it’s not known whether or not they are safe. What makes it worse is that fragrance is considered a trade secret which means companies don’t have to explain to you what is in their products as it relates to fragrance. If you are sensitive to certain chemicals or just want to know what’s in the product you use, obviously this isn’t good. Just because it smells good, doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
One other factor to consider is that Unilever still tests some of their products on animals. They don’t have an anti-cruelty policy. Their reasoning for continued testing is because some countries require it. If you ask us, this sounds like a company who is putting their products ahead of their ethics.
Just because a product comes in a bottle that looks natural and safe, doesn’t mean it’s actually from an ethical company. And, unfortunately, there are many products that employ the same techniques.
The other brand we want to talk about is Lush Cosmetics. Lush is a brand which promotes itself as fresh, handmade products that are made with natural ingredients.
We chose this example because it’s not always obvious when a company is greenwashing. Sometimes it’s subtle, and hard to tell. Lush does a lot of really great things. They have a great track record for sourcing their ingredients ethically, they use minimal packaging, and they encourage customers to bring back their empty containers to recycle. Lush has an anti-cruelty policy and they have also donated money to many great charities. They have done some really great, ethical things. But the problem is in the ingredients.
Unfortunately, they use some ingredients that are controversial. As the detergent element, they use an ingredient related to sodium laureth sulfate called sodium lauryl sulfate. While sodium lauryl sulfate doesn’t have the same issue with contamination as sodium laureth sulfate, it is still a harsh detergent and is still a known skin irritant.
Lush also uses fragrances in their products, which could be a number of thousands of chemicals. While other companies have begun to use natural fragrances, like essential oils, Lush continues to use synthetic fragrances.
Finally, the company uses parabens as a preservative. As we mentioned earlier, there are a lot of choices when it comes to preservatives. Parabens are an issue, because they’ve been known to mimic the hormones in bodies, specifically estrogen, and have been linked with breast cancer.
Many companies have begun to remove parabens. Even the bottle of Suave Professionals Almond+Shea Butter Moisturizing Shampoo is paraben-free. Yet Lush still uses them.
So on the one hand, on their website they are pretty open about what they use. But there just seems to be a disconnect between the idea of fresh, handmade products and the image that implies, when they still use a lot of chemicals.
We’re not here to tell you not to buy these products, but it’s important to know what’s in the product and to determine what you are comfortable with. Unfortunately, greenwashing is everywhere. It’s not just limited to cosmetics, it happens with foods and cleaning products. It’s virtually everywhere.
We think it’s time more people began to know and understand what they are putting in and on their bodies because companies have a long way to go to improve that.
What are your thoughts on greenwashing? Tell us in the comments!