Unethical Marketing: How to Spot Greenwashing


Concerns about sustainability and the effects of global warming have consumers demanding more “green” products that aren’t as detrimental to the environment or their health. Research from the American Chemistry Council, for example, revealed that 83% of people think it’s important for companies to design eco-friendly products, while 72% said they actively purchase more of those products than they did five years ago. 

Other research supports these findings. Ad Age reported in early 2020 that younger consumers, in particular Millennials and Gen Z, are even willing to pay more for eco-friendly products. It should come as no surprise, then that companies have taken these trends to heart, and actively seek ways to make their products more appealing to consumers by touting their environmental friendliness. Products purporting to be “green,” “natural,” “organic,” and more fill the shelves of nearly every retailer. 

But are these products as pure and eco-friendly as they claim to be? Or are consumers falling victim to marketing ploys and gimmicks designed to make them think products are more “green” than they are? The fact is, a number of companies engage in the practice of greenwashing, and unsuspecting customers may be falling for false claims, possibly putting their health and the health of the planet at risk. 

What Is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is the practice of convincing consumers that a particular product is a healthy or sustainable alternative to more conventional products when, in fact, it isn’t. Companies use these methods, which often include using eco-friendly buzzwords like “recycled,” “organic,” “natural,” “pure,” or “botanical” on the labeling or packaging, to attract customers looking for healthier or less harmful options. Other companies may highlight green initiatives within their organization, in an attempt to brand themselves as environmentally-friendly.

Greenwashing can be found in almost every industry, but it’s especially prevalent in the beauty and personal care, household cleaning, and fashion industries. In addition to using buzzwords, companies engaged in greenwashing may change the packaging of products or their broader marketing approach to create the impression that they are a healthier or more environmentally-friendly option. Although some of the claims may be true, in many cases the green aspects of their products or practices are exaggerated to attract consumers. 

Examples of Greenwashing

Greenwashing is so prevalent today that it’s become more difficult than ever to determine which products are truly eco-friendly, and which are simply marketed as such. There are some clues to look for, though.

Generic Language

Greenwashing often involves generic terms like “natural” or “sustainable,” especially in the beauty industry. However, just because an ingredient is natural or organic doesn’t mean that it’s healthy; after all, poisons like arsenic are natural as well. Using these words along with packaging that supports an image of sustainability — for example, using amber glass apothecary-style bottles for creams, images of leaves and flowers on labeling, or selling products in kraft paper boxes with fonts that look handwritten — can all support the perception that a product is more sustainable than it is. 

Consumers need to look beyond the packaging and marketing language to determine what the generic and vague language actually means. Reading labels is the first place to start. An eye cream may claim to be botanical, for example, but a glance at the ingredients could reveal that botanical extracts make up less than 10% of the formula. The best eye-creams will have clear ingredient lists and labels that make it easier to see what is actually in them. In general, companies that are truly committed to sustainability and green initiatives are forthcoming about their initiatives and ingredients, clearly listing product ingredients (and highlighting what’s not in the product), using eco-friendly packaging and labeling it as such, and making clear, substantiated claims. 

Although the Federal Trade Commission doesn’t regulate eco-friendly claims, it does provide voluntary guidelines that caution against making broad claims that cannot be substantiated, and recommend making clear, specific, and prominent claims. Still, these guidelines allow for a great deal of leeway, and it’s up to consumers to uncover the real meaning behind generic statements. 

No Proof of Sustainability

Companies might attempt to create the perception that they engage in sustainable practices like recycling, using renewable energy, or offering carbon offsets. A truly green company will willingly share information publicly, using quantifiable data, photos or videos of how they are creating sustainable products, and seals of approval from various organizations that have confirmed their commitment to sustainability. 

To confirm that a company is committed to sustainability, explore their website, or reach out to ask questions. If they claim to use renewable energy sources, for example, get clarification on what type of energy (i.e., wind or solar) and how much of their energy comes from those sources. Learn the nuances between common terminologies, such as the difference between “renewable” and “recyclable,” to ensure you fully understand a company’s practices. 

Lack of Company Transparency 

Companies that lack proof of their sustainability efforts and are engaged in greenwashing are generally less transparent about their practices than legitimately green companies. In addition to looking for quantifiable proof on their website, check out the organization’s social media profiles, news articles about them, and press releases to evaluate their sustainability practices for yourself. 

There’s a profound difference between companies that allow sustainability to guide every decision and those that give lip service to healthy practices; e.g., only acknowledging sustainability on occasions like Earth Day. Truly green companies infuse sustainability into every aspect of their brand, and it will be obvious in their communication. 

Common Ingredients to Avoid

The best way to avoid falling prey to greenwashing, especially in the realm of skincare and beauty products, is to learn to read labels and identify ingredients that are unethical, harmful, or otherwise unnecessary. 

Some of the most common ingredients to watch for when avoiding greenwashing include:

    • Plastic packaging. Although some companies greenwash using alternative forms of packaging, it is a good idea to avoid plastic packaging as much as possible to reduce plastic pollution. Whenever possible, choose products packaged in other materials, or refillable options. If plastic is the only option, make sure it’s recyclable.
    • Sunscreen. Wearing sunscreen is a must, but many commercial sunscreens and moisturizers contain ingredients that harm coral reefs. Choose zinc-based sunscreen options instead.
    • Added fragrance. Not only does the term “synthetic fragrance” allow companies to keep their formulas secret, reducing transparency, but using products that contain unnecessary fragrances can be detrimental to your health as well as marine life. Choose products like lotions that use natural fragrance or fragrance-free facial cleansers instead. 
    • Palm oil. Commonly used in moisturizers, soaps, and cleaners, palm oil is an effective skin protectant, but its harvest is contributing to deforestation, climate change, and pollution. Choose moisturizers made with sustainably sourced palm oil, or alternatives like shea or jojoba. 
    • Triclosan. An antibacterial used in soaps, sanitizers, and other products, triclosan is contributing to the development of superbugs. Plain soap and water work just as well. 
    • Silicones. Silicones are added to face creams as well as makeup and hair products as a smoothing agent. Silicones can get into the water supply, though, so choose skincare products that contain other oils that aren’t as harmful. 

Other ingredients to watch for that can be harmful to your health include mineral oil, sulfates, parabens, phthalates, and toluene. Many of these ingredients found in cosmetics and skincare are derived from petroleum, which is not only detrimental to the environment, but also your health. Choose cleansers, toners, and makeup made without these ingredients. 

How Companies Are Embracing Green Initiatives

Not all companies offering more eco-friendly products are engaged in greenwashing. Many are truly committed to manufacturing products that are friendly to the Earth and customer health and have embraced green initiatives, including:

    • Switching to more sustainable production methods, from material sourcing through shipping.
    • Using sustainable or recycled materials for packaging, including non-toxic inks. 
    • Switching to renewable energy sources.
    • Using fuel-efficient vehicles for deliveries. 
    • Designing production facilities, warehouses, and retail locations to be as sustainable and energy-efficient as possible; for example, using eco-friendly paints and recycled or reclaimed materials.
    • Developing company-wide recycling initiatives. 
    • Donating funds and time to sustainability initiatives. 

Staying alert to greenwashing, and making the conscious choice to support companies engaged in real efforts toward sustainability will help you make a real difference, and ultimately, perhaps, discourage companies from engaging in misleading and unethical practices.