What Is Greenwashing and How Is It Used in DIY and Building?
Is that flooring really sustainable or that cleaner actually free from harmful chemicals? Here's how to tell if a product is eco, or just pretending.
There aren’t many of us who would actually want to buy a product that’s bad for our health, our air or our forests. So when we’re browsing aisles at the home improvement or grocery store, it’s only natural to reach for labels that say “natural” or “eco-friendly.”
But our purchasing decisions are linked to corporate profits, and that’s when things can get tricky. Some unscrupulous companies make you think their products are green when they really aren’t, a sleight-of-hand known as greenwashing
“As more and more consumers are looking for ways to reduce their impact on the environment and choose more sustainable products, companies are looking for ways to meet that demand,” says Mallory Micetich, home care expert at Angi.
“While many are taking legitimate steps to adopt more sustainable practices and make more eco-friendly goods, others are more of a marketing or PR ploy.”
Fortunately, many of these ploys become transparent once you know how to spot them. Let’s dig into some of those tricks and learn how to avoid being greenwashed.
What Is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing refers to marketing that lies or misleads about the environmental impact of a product or company. The term was coined in the 1980s when people became more aware of egregious claims, like oil company ads about helping sea turtles and bears.
“Overstating environmental benefits, or spending more on advertising sustainability initiatives than on implementing them, can both be considered greenwashing,” says Taryn Tuss, vice president of marketing and communication for Green Seal, a non-profit certification organization. Green Seal has advised the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on its greenwashing rules.
The more environmentally conscious we become as a society, the more prevalent and sophisticated greenwashing becomes, and the more people and the environment harmed because of it. But there are also companies taking legitimate positive steps. When we choose those companies for our DIY building projects and home goods, we can help make that the norm.
How To Spot Greenwashing
Greenwashing is easier to spot in some products than others. Micetich suggests to first look at the packaging and marketing language. Generally, products that use vague terms, claim overly-broad benefits and don’t back up their claims with evidence are likely greenwashing. Here are some tricks to watch out for:
Vague terms and few facts
Watch for jargon like eco-friendly, clean, natural, all-natural, nature, green, environmentally friendly and Earth-safe. If the brand is truly trying to be sustainable, it probably won’t use these terms. It will provide details in plain language about their greenness, either on their packaging or a sustainability page on their website.
Be wary of “a company that claims it is sustainable but offers no emissions data, no product lifecycle analysis or other quantitative evidence that its product is less environmentally damaging than alternatives available in the market,” says Mitch Ratcliffe, publisher of the sustainable living and recycling information site Earth911.
When product claims sound too good to be true, they likely are.
“Claims that a product is renewable are generally too broad to be verifiable or accurate,” says Tuss. “Instead, look for specific attributes or impacts that are limited to a reasonable set of benefits and that are backed up with documentation or third-party certification.”
No independent third-party certification
It’s one thing to say it, but another to prove it. That’s why third-party certifications, such as Green Seal and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), are valuable consumer tools.
In 2017, four paint brands were found guilty of falsely claiming their products were free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Other companies have been punished for making false claims about LED lights and biodegradable plastics. While the FTC catches some of these, they certainly don’t get them all.
Like a magician, some companies try to shift your focus from their misdeeds to something peripheral.
This could be a new building advertising their pollinator garden to appear eco-friendly, without adopting LEED standards for low-emissions. Or a home improvement store that encourages onsite recycling of plastic bags and fluorescent lights, while continuing to sell damaging products.
Claims that are technically true but misleading can also lead buyers astray. “A company could advertise that a carpet has 50 percent more recycled content than before, when the percentage only rose from two percent to three percent recycled content,” says Tuss. “That is not a meaningful attribute.”
Another trick to watch out for with building and maintenance products involve those labeled “chemical-free” or free of certain chemicals. It might be free of one harmful chemical, but chock full of others.
“For paints, low-VOC claims can be helpful when they’re supported by data or certifications,” says Tuss. “But that doesn’t mean a product is automatically safer. There may be hazardous chemicals in the paint that aren’t VOCs.”
To truly be a green product, it doesn’t just matter what’s in the product. but the strides the company has made to be sustainable. That includes how they power their corporate headquarters; sourcing of materials; mitigation of carbon and pollution from manufacturing and shipping; and the green practices of companies within their supply chain.
The pollinator garden out front or the dancing elephant on the package doesn’t counteract the millions a company may be quietly spending lobbying for fewer pollution regulations.
Claiming it, even when they have to
Some companies love to tout greenness that’s required by law. Companies aren’t selling antibiotic-free chicken because they care about more about consumer health than other manufacturers; federal law demands it. Similarly, hormones are prohibited in pork and chicken.
How To Avoid Greenwashed Products
When DIYing renovations or building a home, trying to make sustainable purchases can be problematic. “Home improvement products aren’t always marketed or packaged like other consumer goods, so sometimes it can be a bit harder to find clear markers on whether something is truly a greener option,” says Micetich.
Here are a few things to look for:
Several trustworthy green certifications and third parties can point you toward reputable product certifications.
For building products, look for LEED. With appliances, go with EnergyStar. For wood, a U.S. Forest Stewardship Council (FCS) certification or Greenguard label means it’s more sustainably sourced. For general products, UL’s ECOLOGO and Green Seal are good.
If you’re unsure if a certification is trustworthy or what it means, look it up on this list of eco labels and check out the FTC’s Green Guides.
Look for products that reduce energy and water consumption, like low-flow shower heads and dual or low-flow toilets. Also try to buy products with minimal plastic and other wasteful packaging.
Seek out alternatives
Research smaller innovative companies that are truly trying to make their business and products Earth-friendly. Gear Hugger makes a plant-based version of traditional multipurpose lubricant, and Cleancult sells healthy cleaning product refills in recyclable milk cartons. Or you can try making cleaning products at home.
Ask an enviro pro
When you’ve got a DIY project in the works, advice from someone familiar with sustainability can help you better understand if you’re choosing the greenest options.
“Think about bamboo flooring, which is becoming well known as a more environmentally friendly flooring option than the more traditional wood,” says Micetich.
“Yes, bamboo is faster growing and more renewable than wood, has a long life-cycle, can be recycled and is LEED-certified. However, it is also often imported into the U.S., which comes with an associated carbon emission.”