The labels eco, green, natural and the like are qualifiers used on packaging or in marketing campaigns to attract the environmentally-conscious consumer, but they could mean nothing! Consequences? Customers don’t know which product is truly manufactured using renewable sources and sustainable practices, and which product is only claiming to do so. Even worse, many are ready to pay more for supposedly eco-consumables.
The term greenwashing was first used in 1986, by Jay Westerveld who assessed that the save-water-by-reusing-your-towel practice in hotels was only about hotels saving the cost of washing. While it saved water and energy, there was no sustainable intent. Yet, hotels continue to market it as an eco-friendly practice.
Other examples include a corporation announcing intent to make its packaging recyclable (without a plan in place), a petroleum producer using solar panels on roofs of gas stations to “become sustainable”, fast-fashion producers (cheaply made trendy clothing) offering an “environmentally conscious” collection while (as an industry) contributing to 10% of global carbon emissions, and 100% biodegradable packaging (only if disposed of in the right conditions). My personal best was buying plastic Easter eggs marketed as “compostable in 90 days…” They spent three years in my garden, intact!
How are you and I supposed to figure out the real from the fake among the countless brands of coffee, cereals, or the construction material to build an ADU? California Bill 343, an expansion of California’s Truth in Environment Advertising Law, takes aim at greenwashing tactics. While falsely claiming that an item is recyclable is prohibited under the current law, the expanded version, starting in 2024, will ensure that the green chasing-arrow recycling symbol can only be used on items that are actually recyclable. Most importantly, it will require meaningful usage of terms representing eco-friendliness, such as “green product,” “environmentally safe” or “ecologically sound.”
In the meantime, here are a few tips to spot greenwashed products: eco-claims without written explanation, recyclable packaging to mail back, or corporations with large catalogs of environment damaging products hiding behind a token number of eco-friendly options. Verifying the validity and meaning of ecolabels could help make informed purchasing decisions. A great resource is the Ecolabelindex.com, which tracks 455 ecolabels in 199 countries across 25 sectors. Finally, shopping at a store which does the detective work for their customers makes it easy! Locally, Jimbo’s Naturally screens its potential vendors through a number of criteria to exclude GMOs, refined sugar, pesticides, artificial coloring, cosmetics containing nano-particles, oxybenzone, petrochemicals fillers, and more.