Greenwashing – What is it and how to avoid it

There has been a lot of talk of greenwashing again lately, whilst I welcome some of the debate with regards to cosmetic ingredients and standards for brands, I do think that sometimes this issue is taken out of proportion. Like everything in life, perspective is key. Marketing natural brands and products is a tricky business.

The term greenwashing applies to deceptive marketing; brands making themselves appear to be natural, organic or environmentally friendly through their packaging, marketing and language used to sell their products but the reality not matching up to these claims. Things get particularly complicated when it comes to ethical claims, especially when the brand is owned by a larger parent company who may have a different ethical stance to that advertised.

I do think there are some genuine and concerning cases of greenwashing, especially on the high-street, but it is worth noting that it is often a term thrown at any brand that simply has a differing set of standards or opinion, even if they are transparent on what those are, generally by disgruntled competition or by someone with a vested interest in doing so. My main message in this post, is that you get to decide what is “green enough” for you, so by all means get informed, but ultimately you make your own choices.

I remember what it was like when I first started to take an interest in natural beauty, the science regarding ingredients, the marketing used by some brands and the amount of choice available make it more than a little overwhelming. We are all influenced by marketing and even brands with the best of intentions have fallen foul of exaggerating claims or marketing themselves based on the faults of others rather than their own strengths. I wish that generally people would respect other people’s choices more, rather than so much of the judgement that happens online, if you love a brand that others consider greenwashed, I see no reason to stop using it if you don’t want to. Having said that, there is so much choice and so many fantastic brands to choose from that nine times out of ten I think you can probably find a better alternative if you aren’t happy.

I think it’s important that people don’t pay out for brands and products that don’t live up to their own marketing claims, brands should be walking the walk as well as talking the talk. Genuine brands will be interesting in communicating with their customers as well as constantly improving and evolving. Authenticity is something consumers are beginning to crave, after years of being sold snake oil, we are more informed than ever and with that rise in conscious consumerism comes questions for brands to answer. I have learnt a lot about navigating the green beauty market over the years, so here is my top tips for finding brands that are a great fit for you:

Pick your level of green – The green beauty industry is growing a fast pace, that means that there are enough brands out there that cater for everyone in terms of ingredient needs, standards and ethics. As a consumer it is up to you to decide what you feel comfortable using, shop around, get information and make an informed choice. Let’s be honest here, how natural or green something is, is only one of the factors that make up our buying choices, price point, availability and personal preference all have a role to play too. There are some products that I am more fussy with than others, for example I am very picky when it comes to my children’s skincare (the simpler the better on young skins), but generally more relaxed about products for my own use. It is absolutely fine for your standards to change across time too, but the most important thing is that these are your decisions to make, you are in control. My go to question when it comes to whether I want to repurchase a product is: “Is there something better out there in terms of ingredients/ethics for a similar price point and performance?”.

Always read the label – This is conscious consumerism 101, but you always, always have to read the label. This way if you come across an ingredient, marketing term or something else that you aren’t 100% happy with, it allows you to do some research and decide whether you want to give it a go anyway. I sometimes use products where one or two ingredients aren’t my preferred, but the overall formula is what I would consider to be good enough. Take a look on the marketing on the front and then relate that back to the ingredients list, do the two things match up? You will be surprised at how many times I have seen brands make claims such as vegan friendly brand, when in fact some of the products contain animal ingredients. The terms natural, organic and naturally inspired are all unregulated in cosmetics, so therefore open to brands interpretations, going straight to the ingredients list and bypassing the “free from” marketing cuts out a lot of the noise. It’s also worth pointing out that sometimes people have unrealistic expectations from brands and products, 100% natural isn’t always easy to produce and that is because there are limited effective natural preservative systems available that would work for every product without severely limiting shelf life. The easiest way to go natural and organic is to look for water free formulas, such as oils and butters. Otherwise many brands use a naturally derived or synthetic preservative system. I can’t stress enough that proper preservation is so important; mould, yeast and bacteria can all grow in cosmetics and can be harmful to our health. Preservatives are some of the most scrutinised ingredients in the natural beauty world, but I see a lot less debate about the impact of improperly preserved products on our health.

Look for a certification – The issue of certification is also really rather confusing for consumers, but looking for trusted logos is one of the factors that can help you decide if a brand is authentic or not. Some of the ones I like to look for are Soil Association/COSMOS, NATRUE for natural/organic standards, BUAV leaping bunny for cruelty free and vegan society. For more help deciphering organic certifications take a look at my post here. Not all of the brands I like and support have certifications, especially when starting out, so I definitely wouldn’t avoid brands who didn’t carry a logo, but having one is a voluntary process that the brands pay for, so does show commitment to transparency on their behalf.

Visit the brands website – One of the first things I will do when I am contacted by a brand or a PR agency is go and take a look at the brands website. A good website can tell you so much and go in to further detail than the brand can on the packaging. The first thing I look for is full ingredients lists for every product, not just “key ingredients” but I want to see the whole formula listed so I can make an informed choice whether I want to spend my hard earned money on that product. A detailed About us section, covering things like ingredients policy, certifications, brand statement is extremely helpful. in deciding if the products are right for you. If the brand is more style over substance, more often than not I will pass, there really is no need to settle for second best.

Always keep things in perspective – Something that bothers me regarding debates about greenwashing and ingredients is the fact that often the sense of balance and perspective is lost. With the micro focus on individual ingredients in the formula we can often forget that the ingredient in certain doses within one formula will often not have the same effects as the same ingredient used in larger quantities in an experiment. Context is everything, everything in life is about balance and stressing out over certain ingredients will almost certainly have a detrimental effect on your health. Our perception of risk is something that is fascinating to me, whilst I believe in mitigating unnecessary risks where possible, I also think it is human nature to overstate the extent of certain risks whilst downplaying others. Ultimately your products should not just be effective, but a pleasure to use, because self care is a gift not a chore.

I hope this post was helpful to help you navigate some of the natural marketing and help you focus in on what is important to you. Have you got any thoughts? Let me know in the comments!

Ana Green

Written by Ana – A beauty industry professional who is passionate about product and helping people navigate the marketing hype in the beauty industry.