greenwashing labels A\J

All you need to do to make your product "green" is attach one of these labels!
Graphic © Elena Andreeva

What You Need to Know About Greenwashing

Don’t let those “eco-friendly” labels fool you: here’s how to guard against the lure of green consumerism.

Is it easy to be green?

As environmental education and activism expands to the masses, corporations are more frequently jumping on the green bandwagon, or so it seems. 

Is it easy to be green?

As environmental education and activism expands to the masses, corporations are more frequently jumping on the green bandwagon, or so it seems. 

Just as the media, corporations and government are known to whitewash certain alternative voices, with increased awareness for the environmental movement, greenwashing has become a new concern. Greenwashing is “the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.”

Not so keen on the green

Some common words and phrases companies use to trick people into believing they are making better environmental choices include: all natural, recycled, organic, green, sustainable, environmentally friendly, botanicals, pure and clean. Most of these examples fall into what global independent science safety company UL describes as the sins of greenwashing, which include hidden trade-offs, no proof, vagueness, irrelevance, fibbing, the lesser of two evils and the worshipping of false labels.

The sins of greenwashing

1. The sin of hidden trade-offs claims a product is “green” based on certain characteristics while ignoring other important environmental issues related to the product. An example would be a product claiming to use recycled paper, while glossing over the use of chlorine in bleaching or adding chemicals to the paper. 

2. The sin of no proof is one of the most common, and occurs when a product doesn’t back up its green claims with any support or reliable third party certification. This most often occurs in products claiming to have “recycled content” with only a tiny percentage of the product being made from recyclable material. 

3. The sin of vagueness works by broadly defining and not providing clear terms that may confuse consumers. The most common occurrence is the term “all natural,” since many things are naturally occurring, but also harmful to the environment and humans, such as arsenic and mercury.

4. The sin of irrelevance occurs when a product’s claims may be truthful but are not of value to people who are looking for environmentally preferred products. This would include a product claiming to be CFC-free, since CFCs are banned by law in Canada. 

5. The sin of fibbing occurs when a product’s claims are a flat-out lie. This often occurs with products that claim to be Energy Star or Fair Trade certified, when they are not. Thankfully this sin is one of the least committed. The most noteworthy example of this occurrence was an advertisement for Nestlé Water claiming “bottled water is the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world.” Subsequently, a complaint was filed against Nestlé Waters North America under the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards. 

6. The lesser of two evils sin occurs when a product’s claims may be true but distract consumers from the overall implications of that category of products for the environment. This most commonly occurs in advertising discourse for fuel-efficient SUVs. 

7. The sin of worshipping false labels involves a product using self-created labels, verifications and logos that give the illusion of being endorsed by a third party. This often occurs with the use of fake logos that are not actually affiliated with a genuine environmental organization or certification. Two common occurring examples include logos claiming the product to be Fair Trade or Organic that are not certified by Fair Trade Canada and/or Organic Canada. One logo you can always trust is the Canadian EcoLogo which is a verified environmental certification that identifies environmentally preferred products that meet strict standards of responsibility through their entire lifecycle. Find a list of verified environmental certifications here.

Green capitalism is not activism

We encounter instances of greenwashing on a daily basis as concern for the environment has become a mainstream issue. This growing concern by citizens has led corporations to advance the ideology of green capitalism, in which consumers are urged to help the environment through the purchase of ostensibly eco-friendly products.

Consumer activism is problematic on two levels. Firstly, as exemplified above, many of these commodities are not actually living up to their green claims.

Secondly, placing responsibility on individuals to change their habits through green consumerism shifts the focus away from corporations as the cause of many of the world’s environmental problems, and also away from the government as regulators. Moreover, placing agency in the hands of individuals rather than corporations serves to further advance the corporate agenda by keeping us thinking about ourselves as individuals and consumers rather than as citizens or community members.

Avoid falling victim to greenwashing

Read your labels – especially on your bath and body products, and memorize the common harmful ingredients such as sodium laureth in soaps, aluminum in antiperspirants and parabens in makeup and hair products. Here is a great resource to help you love the label and decipher what shouldn’t be in your stuff.

Do your research – Take the time to investigate a company’s claims. Company transparency is increasingly important to consumers, so report instances of greenwashing. I also recommend investing in some reference books such as Adria Vasil’s Ecoholic Body and Ecoholic Home, which provide a great foundation of knowledge to help you spot greenwashing.


Jennifer has recently completed her Master of Arts in Communication and Social Justice, and previously her Bachelor of Arts Honours in Communication Studies, both at the University of Windsor.  She resides in Toronto, Ontario and spends her free time pursuing her craft of acting and producing for TV and film.