The great eco-friendly con – and how companies are misleading you

We’ve all grabbed the “eco” product adorned with leaf motifs off the supermarket shelf, only to get home and discover it’s not as clean as suggested. Greenwashing – when a company deliberately misleads shoppers into thinking a product is more sustainable than it really is – is rife. Only last month, an Innocent Drinks TV ad was banned for claiming its (plastic-bottled) drinks help the environment – a bold assertion, perhaps, given Innocent’s owner Coca-Cola is consistently named one of the world’s biggest plastic polluters. 

Such marketing attempts might sound laughable – like the water promoted as “vegan”, or apples sold as “plant-based”. But greenwashing is by design insidious, and intended to appeal subliminally, when – perhaps in a mad trolley-dash, and David Attenborough preying on our consciences – our critical faculties aren’t optimised. Our brains thus translate the image of a bamboo leaf or “eco-friendly” words as reassurance that we’re shopping responsibly.

And we’re falling for it. In 2020, New York University’s Stern School of Business found that sales of sustainability marketed products grew seven times faster than those not sustainably marketed. Greenwashing has proved an irresistible bandwagon for brands – Mintel found that 27 per cent of beauty and personal-care products made eco-friendly claims in 2015; this figure grew to 46 per cent in 2019.

In fact, it’s so prolific that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is launching an investigation, prompted by its 2020 finding that 40 per cent of green claims were “suspect”, says Cecilia Parker Aranha, CMA’s director of consumer protection. Yet our suspicions are often not aroused: she also cites EU research from 2019, which found that 63 per cent of British consumers trusted sustainable claims.

The CMA is not planning to tread lightly in its enforcement actions. Starting with fashion (more on why later), it will be going after companies making unsubstantiated, cherry-picked or plain dishonest claims. If they don’t voluntarily amend their messaging, cases will be opened against them and court proceedings may follow. Other sectors (beauty and personal care, household goods, travel, energy) needn’t think they’re “off the hook”, says Parker Aranha. The CMA is coming for them, too.

If all this leaves you with shopping paralysis, take comfort from Greenpeace’s chief scientist, Dr Doug Parr. “The best shield against greenwash,” he says, “is to reduce [consumption]. You can be completely confident you weren’t conned into buying something with fraudulent or unrealistic claims if you didn’t buy it.”

Avoid greenwashing in beauty and personal care

Be wary of “natural” and “organic”: unlike with food, these terms are not legally protected and can be applied to almost any product. Look for COSMOS Organic Certification, which ensures at least 95 per cent organic ingredients (COSMOS Natural Certification is for non-organic products that are verifiably planet-friendly). Otherwise, any mention of organic is greenwashing.

Look for shorter, recognisable ingredients lists. See the Soil Association’s “terrible 10” ingredients to avoid (right). Know how to recognise hidden palm oil in products. “Look out for root words such as ‘palm’, ‘laur’, ‘stear’ or ‘glyc’,” says Ruth Strange of the Ethical Consumer.

Protect animals. Look for the Leaping Bunny logo, “the highest standard against animal testing”, says Strange. But know your leaping bunnies – there are fakes out there.

The Soil Association’s terrible 10: ingredients to avoid

Many of these ingredients – some of which are toxic both to our bodies and the environment – are found in popular high‑street products, some of which sell themselves as “organic” or “natural” – so start reading labels carefully.

For more information, go to: soilassociation.org

Ethyl hexylsalicylate (Octisalate)

Used as a chemical UV filter in sunscreen, a fragrance ingredient and also helps the skin better absorb cosmetics

Homosalate

Chemical sunscreen which offers protection from UVB but not UVA. It is aromatic and also acts as a skin conditioner

Imidazolidinyl urea

Helps to retain moisture in the upper layers of the skin

Octinoxate

Found in sunscreens, it blocks UVB rays

Octocrylene

Chemical sunscreen filter, blocks UVB and some UVA rays
PEGs: PEG-7; PEG-40; PEG-200; PEG-12
Used to improve texture, carry moisturisers or as solvents in the manufacturing of products

Polyquaternium 7

An anti-static agent, it is used in shampoo and conditioner

Polysorbate 20

This is a detergent used to clean things and an emulsifier, which is used to mix oil and water. It’s found in bubble bath, body wash, shampoo and handwash

Red 17 artificial colour 26100

This artificial dye is used to create a red colour in cosmetic products. Can be found in bath oil, but it has also been used in red beauty products, such as blusher or lipstick

Retinyl palmitate

An anti-oxidant, retinyl is otherwise known as vitamin A1. Retinyl occurs naturally in foods, but retinyl palmitate is artificial. It is used in anti-ageing products and sunscreens

Safe places to shop

Online

“It’s much easier to check claims online than in-store,” notes Sophie Robinson from the Soil Association. See if the brand has a link with Provenance – a tech platform that works with more than 150 brands to highlight sustainability credentials. “It’s another level of trust, versus a brand just saying it,” explains Provenance founder Jessi Baker. See also Selfridges’ Project Earth.

B Corp edits

March is B Corp month, a celebration of one of the most rigorous certifying bodies, whereby businesses are regularly audited to ensure their alignment with people, planet and profit. This month, you’ll find B Corp displays in nearly 200 Waitrose stores, as well as permanent B Corp search filters at waitrose.com, boots.com and Ocado. It is possible to survive on a B Corp diet alone (think Cook meals, Pukka teas, Abel & Cole veg boxes and Divine chocolate).

Farmer’s markets

Spending a leisurely Saturday chatting up farmers has the added advantage of offering a few greenwash-mitigating guarantees. With strict rules about producer-only stalls, the products will also be seasonal and relatively local. Organic isn’t guaranteed, though, and if they’re using single-use plastic packaging, you should have a polite word. Plus, says Futerra’s Rachel Jones: “Your money is going straight to those producers.” She also recommends the Better Food Traders directory, which lists fruit and veg retailers that put communities, farmers and the planet first.

Five egregious examples of greenwashing

Korean Beauty Brand’s “paper bottle”

In 2021, the South Korean cosmetics brand Innisfree launched a serum in a “paper bottle”. The game was up when a shopper shared photos on Facebook, revealing a plastic container underneath the paper.

Adidas’s ‘50 per cent recycled’ Stan Smiths

Last year, Adidas was found guilty of greenwashing by a French advertising ethics jury after claiming that its “End plastic waste” Stan Smith trainers were “50 per cent recycled”, when it only applied to the shoe’s upper.

Oatly’s alt-milk alt-facts

In adverts released last year, the Swedish plant-milk brand claimed their oat milk generates 73 per cent less carbon dioxide than dairy milk. However, this is only true when comparing Oatly Barista Edition to 
full-fat cow’s milk.

Ryanair – not ‘the uk’s lowest emission airline’

Using data from 2011, and without accounting for many rival airlines, Ryanair failed to convince the Advertising watchdog that, as its 2020 ad had claimed, it was the UK’s lowest emission airline.

Volkswagen’s ‘clean diesel’ emissions scandal

In what is surely the ultimate in greenwashing, VW programmed its TDI diesel engines to activate their emissions controls only during lab testing, so that they’d meet US standards for nitrogen oxides.

How to avoid greenwashing in food

Buy organic

In the food sector, only products certified by the Soil Association to contain at least 95 per cent organic ingredients can be labelled organic.

Buy food in its natural state

Pick up a bag of potatoes, for example, rather than oven chips, or ready-made dauphinoise. “You can see where it’s from – and it’s usually cheaper,” says Sophie Robinson.

… Or with fewer than five ingredients

“The fewer and more recognisable the ingredients, the healthier it is, usually,” says Rachel Jones, planning director at sustainability agency Futerra.

Avoid food made by huge conglomerates

“The closer the links you can have to your food, the better,” says Clare Carlile, co-editor of Ethical Consumer magazine. Buy direct from the baker, fishmonger and butcher.

Look out for “plant-based” greenwashing

“If grown using lots of pesticides, water or soil-damaging farming, it can be very damaging for our planet and health,” says Jones. However, plant-based ultra-processed food is less environmentally damaging than meat-based ultra-processed food.

How to avoid greenwashing in fashion

Despite the fashion industry’s wake-up call that was the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, it has not fundamentally changed, says Clare Carlile. “It might be tweaking its behaviour, but largely it remains unsustainable.” You’d get a very different picture if you only listened to the fashion brands – hence being the first target for the CMA’s greenwashing investigation.

According to research last year by the Changing Markets Foundation (CMF), 59 per cent of major fashion brands’ green claims were misleading or unsubstantiated. For the worst offenders, this was as high as 90 per cent. During last month’s London Fashion Week, CMF launched greenwash.com to educate consumers on the fashion industry’s greenwashing tricks. Here’s what to look out for:

The provenance label

“Where it’s made only refers to the final assembly,” explains Carlile. “It doesn’t tell you, for example, where the cotton is from.” With 20 per cent of cotton grown in the Uyghur region of China, one in five cotton products is implicated with forced labour.

Certifications

For organic cotton, look for GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), where every organisation in the supply chain must be certified. While BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) tags are proliferating in high-street clothing, “its data is based on averages,” warns Philippa Grogan of Eco-Age, “and it’s hard to find out where fibres have been produced. You can’t call yourself sustainable if you’re using BCI.”

Bamboo

It sounds alluring, this “sustainable”, soft fabric made from fast-growing forests that don’t require pesticides. But, says Sophie Robinson from the Soil Association, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a certified organic bamboo fabric, because “processing it into a textile is so energy-intensive, it doesn’t meet organic standards.”

Recycled polyester

Whether recycled polyester qualifies as a green textile is debatable, given the volume of microfibre shed during washing – some argue that its use is actually greenwash. Most agree though that using recycled instead of virgin polyester in clothing reduces carbon and keeps materials in circulation. Choose items that don’t require regular washing (outerwear, shoes) and, Grogan advises, wash in a microfibre-catching Guppyfriend washing bag and on a slower cycle to reduce the abrasion.

Greenwash-busting digital tools

Good on You

A free, trusted app that rates fashion brands on transparency, environmental practices and workers’ rights

Project Cece

A fashion ecommerce site where you can filter according to your values – vegan, fair trade, locally produced, eco or good causes. Or all of the above

Ethical Consumer

A rigorous database and bimonthly magazine that rates more than 40,000 brands and products across 20 criteria in many sectors (fashion, beauty, food, energy, transport, etc)

Think Dirty

Scan the product barcode to reveal the nasties in your beauty, personal care or household products

Yuka

This French app demystifies ingredients on personal-care products and food and suggests alternatives

Beat the Microbead

This app identifies microplastic-based ingredients in beauty and personal-care products, and champions microplastic-free options

Greenwashing glossary: A sliding scale from fluffy to specific

Natural

Not always good for you or the planet. Arsenic, anyone?

Sustainable

With no standard definition, its use is meaningless. “Claims that are unexplained and unsubstantiated are a sure sign of greenwashing,” says Jones. See also “clean” and “eco-friendly”

Compostable

Most bioplastics require industrial composting and without it, end up lingering in landfill. Look out for the OK Home Compost logo

Recyclable

“This doesn’t mean that this product has been or ever will be recycled,” says Parr. “Ignore.” If possible, go packaging-free. See also recycled, which might mean as little as 1 per cent is recycled content

Offsetting

“Unless you planted trees 50 years ago, offsetting doesn’t mean that your flight didn’t warm the climate,” says Parr

Carbon-neutral

If that’s through carbon-offsetting, it’s greenwash. “Companies should be reducing their carbon footprint themselves (to 50 per cent by 2030 and 90 per cent by 2050),” says Jones, “through transport, packaging, production, etc.” See also low-carbon and net-zero

Certified

It’s complex (just google “FSC scandal”, “RSPO criticism”, “MSC seaspiracy” etc). Last year Greenpeace analysed nine certification systems, among them, the Forest Stewardship Council and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil: “The results were not reassuring – don’t ignore certifications, but don’t fully trust them,” says Parr

.

Leave a Comment