As consumers are becoming more aware about the ingredients in the products that they're buying, manufacturers are getting more and more clever at using marketing speak to try to convince us that the products they're selling are good for you and the environment. Working your way through the greenwash means that you need to have a sharp eye out for these sneaky marketing tricks.
So let's bust some myths about green products:
Natural means ingredients come from nature.
"Natural. Existing in or caused by nature; not artificial."
That's according to the Oxford English Dictionary. However, when it comes to food and skincare products, that's not exactly the case. The word 'natural' is not regulated, and anything with 'natural' or 'nature' in the product name can contain non-natural ingredients, including synthetics and even harmful toxins.
Even natural flavour means ingredients can be 'nature-identical' which is to say, still synthetic. Which means that you need to read the ingredients list on the back of the label, and ignore the front of the label where all the marketing guff is.
Organic products are better.
"Organic. Produced or involving production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, etc."
That's according to the OED. Yet when it comes to food and skincare products, once again, the word organic itself is not regulated. A product called 'Charlie's Organic Wondercream' for example may not include a single organic ingredient, and that's completely legal.
How do you check that organic products are organic? Look for independent organic certifications. And even then, read the ingredients.
Degradable and Biodegradable are the same thing.
Biodegradable means that the whole product can "degrade to the point where microorganisms can completely metabolize them to carbon dioxide, water, biomass & mineral salts." Biodegradable bags are usually made from renewable resources.
Degradable means that the plastic has an additive that makes the plastic break down into smaller pieces when it's exposed to light, heat and air. This is why these kinds of plastics are also called photodegradable or oxo-degradable plastics. It's also why they won't completely biodegrade when they're buried in landfill or compost - there's no light and air. What you end up with is lots of small pieces of oil based plastic that won't break down completely.
Fragmentation is not the same as biodegradation, and it's causing problems in our marine environments. There are independent certifications for biodegradability, so if you're looking for biodegradable, look for one of these:
- EN13432/EN14995 Compostability mark: VINÇOTTE (Belgium)
- ASTM D 6400 Compostability mark: BPI - BioPolymer Institute (USA)
- EN13432 Compostability mark: DIN CERTCO (Germany) and ABA (Australia)
Wherever possible, go for reusable, rather than single use items. Even if the product is biodegradable, the resources required to make a single use item are huge.
BPA-free is safe.
You see it everywhere now. BPA-free drink bottles and sippy cups, lunch boxes and even blenders. BPA became newsworthy, there was public outcry and the manufacturers responded - but what they didn't tell us is that one of the plasticizers they've switched to is Bisphenol-S.
Bisphenol-S is similar in structure to BPA but we don't yet know enough about to determine whether it's any safer than BPA. In fact, early research suggests it may even be worse than BPA due to the fact that it's not as biodegradable, and it's more heat stable, suggesting that the same hormone mimicking properties don't degrade as quickly as BPA, meaning that it may accumulate in the body. What's the answer? Avoid plastics where possible and choose stainless steel, glass and ceramic instead.
Fragrance free contains no fragrance.
There's no standard definition for fragrance free, or unscented. This actually means 'no detectable odour' but fragrances can be still added to 'fragrance-free' products cover up the smell of other chemicals. And due to trade secret laws, manufacturers don't have to disclose what makes up their fragrance.
Because of this, fragrance is one of the ingredients that it's highly recommended you skip when it comes to personal care. Always read the ingredients list, look for fragrance, parfum or perfume and choose a different product if you see it on there. If the scent is made using essential oils, you're okay unless you have a sensitivity to those oils.
Chemical-free is better.
Don't start me on the phrase 'chemical free', because I start ranting. There is no such thing as chemical free. Everything is made of chemicals: the air you breathe, the water you drink, you! Somehow this completely incorrect phrase has come to mean free of toxic chemicals, however not all chemicals are toxic, and not all 'chemical-free' products are safe. It's just another meaningless phrase that marketers are trying to confuse us with.
Eco friendly is better.
What is eco friendly? The materials used? The manufacturing process? The cradle to grave impact of this product compared to another product? Once again, it really doesn't mean anything unless you know what it is that you're looking for. Beware of products with packaging that claims that it's eco friendly, unless it's backed up by an independently certified ecolabel from the likes of GECA, the EU Ecolabel, or the Nordic Swan Eco Label.
Moving to e-statements is going 'green'.
Corporate companies use and abuse this term all the time. Just about everything can be received via email these days. Sure, it's saving paper, but that doesn't equal an environmentally friendly company. It takes a little more than an e-statement in my opinion to be called a green initiative in the corporate world.
Once again, take 'green' words on corporate marketing paraphernalia with a grain of salt. I once read about a soap company that claimed to help save wildlife. It turned out that they simply donated antibacterial soap to rescue groups to help clean up animals after oil spills, only the product they were donating actually contained ingredients harmful to animals.
So don't romanticize all the green terms you see on a product label. A little healthy scepticism goes a long way on your journey to greener living.
Naturally derived is another confusing term. What it actually means is a natural ingredient, for example coconut, is mixed it with a synthetic one, to create an entirely new ingredient.
Cocamidopropyl betaine is one such ingredient. It's not natural, it's a synthetic. It can be an irritant because there may be contaminants left after the chemical processing, although it can be processed to remove the contaminants. It's allowed in skincare products by EcoCert, but not allowed by ACO (Australian Certified Organic). That's just one example of a 'naturally derived' ingredient. Don't be fooled.