Buy Green but Beware of Greenwashing

Rachel Maloney

Green is much more than a shade of healthy grass these days. The buzzword describes everything from hotels to gasoline. Like the widespread use of the word “organic” prior to USDA regulation, products labeled or referred to as “green” may not represent an item that is truly safe and sustainable for your home or the environment.

We are bombarded with marketing messages every day and there are more and more green marketing messages out there. There are currently products on the market labeled green even though they have few, if any, environmental or health benefits. Even well intentioned shoppers may fall victim to products that do not deliver on the environmental claims they make. Luckily, there are some common greenwashing signs that consumers can look for when shopping. Review the Six Sins of Greenwashing below  for tips when shopping. It might take a little extra effort, but consumers can find many products to purchase from toothpaste to insulation that are truly green.

Six Sins of Greenwashing

Reprinted with permission from

Sin of Hidden Trade Off

The Product: paper (including household tissue, paper towel, and copy paper): Say this product comes from a sustainably harvested forest, but what are the impacts of its milling and transportation? Is the manufacturer also trying to reduce those impacts? Emphasizing one environmental issue isn’t a problem (indeed, it often makes for better communications). The problem arises when hiding a trade-off between environmental issues.

Sin of No Proof

The Product: Personal care products (such as shampoos and conditioners) that claim not to have been tested on animals, but offer no evidence or certification of this claim. Company websites, third-party certifiers, and toll-free phone numbers are easy and effective means of delivering proof.

Sin of Vagueness

The Product: Garden insecticides promoted as “chemical-free.” In fact, nothing is free of chemicals. Water is a chemical. All plants, animals, and humans are made of chemicals, as are all of our products. If the marketing claim doesn’t explain itself (“here’s what we mean by ‘eco’ or ‘chemical-free'”), the claim is vague and meaningless. Similarly, watch for other popular vague green terms: “non-toxic”, “all-natural”, “environmentally-friendly”, and “earth-friendly.”

Sin of Irrelevance

The Product: CFC-free oven cleaners, CFC free shaving gels, CFC-free window cleaners, CFC-free disinfectants. Could all of the other products in this category make the same claim? The most common example is easy to detect: Don’t be impressed by CFC-free! (CFCs are ozone-depleting propellants called chlorofluorocarbons). Ask if the claim is important and relevant to the product. (If a light bulb claimed water efficiency benefits you should be suspicious.) Comparison-shop and ask the competitive vendors.

Sin of Fibbing

The Product: Shampoos that claims to be “certified organic”, but our research could find no such certification. When I check up on it, is the claim true? The most frequent examples in this study were false uses of third-party certifications. Thankfully, these are easy to confirm. Legitimate third-party certifiers-EcoLogoCM, Chlorine Free Products Association (CFPA), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Green Guard, and Green Seal, for example-all maintain publicly available lists of certified products. Some even maintain fraud advisories for products that are falsely claiming certification.

Sin of the Lesser of Two Evils

The Product: Organic tobacco, “green” insecticides, and herbicides. Is the claim trying to make consumers feel ‘green’ about a product category that is of questionable environmental benefit? Consumers concerned about the pollution associated with cigarettes would be better served by quitting smoking than by buying organic cigarettes. Similarly, consumers concerned about the human health and environmental risks of excessive use of lawn chemicals might create a bigger environmental benefit by reducing their use than by looking for greener alternatives.


Our Sponsors