Real Green or Just Hype?

By Leah Kaminsky

Take a stroll down any aisle in your local supermarket and you’re likely to encounter a wide range of “green” products. It’s in other places, too, from hotels boasting their “environmentally friendly” laundry policies, to energy companies claiming to be “clean.”

But surely, not all these companies could have grown an eco-conscious overnight. In fact, there’s even a term for companies that spend more time and funds on promoting their green deeds than actually working to be green: greenwashing.

So just how can you tell the real green from the fake?

1. Look at the ingredients list. Companies are quick to promote a single natural ingredient and ignore the rest. Just look at all the cleaning products that put phrases like, “Clean with natural enzyme action” on the front just because they use baking soda, forgetting to mention that they also phthalates, sodium sulphate, and so forth. Unless you’re a chemist, bring your smart phone or tablet along to the grocery store so you can look up each chemical on a database like the one provided by the Environmental Working Group.

2. Insist on specificity. While many companies feel comfortable slapping “all natural” on their product, it’s far more likely they’re telling the truth when they use a specific claim like, “Made with 100% organic oranges.” The more specific the claim, the easier it is to check its validity, the more likely the company will feel the pinch to tell the truth.

3. Research the company. What are consumers saying about it online? For that matter, what does the company website say about its products? Does it explain its claims and define its terms? Because there’s no standard definition for words like natural, eco, green, nontoxic, and even biodegradable (yes, while biodegradation is an agreed upon scientific process, add an “-able” onto the term and who knows what you’ve got), each company will have their own definition of what those terms mean. Make sure you agree.

4. Avoid flashy packaging. Product packaging has always been designed with buyer psychology in mind, and greenwashed products are no exception. Just because a spray bottle has a flower on it, doesn’t mean it’s any better for the environment than the plain bottle next to it. In fact, companies would be all the more green with plain packaging, if they invested the cost of designing and printing complicated packaging in green efforts instead.

5. Verify with seals of approval. While there are certainly green products that don’t bear seals from trusted green organizations, having one never hurts. Look for the EnergyStar logo, the USDA Organic Seal, the Green Seal or the Forest Stewardship Council logo on appliances, cosmetics, produce and paper products.

The green industry is still very new, which means it’s something like the Wild West. If history is any indication, we’ll have better guides and oversight as time wears on. Until then, these five tips should help dye your eco-efforts a true green.