Watch out for “Greenwashing”

As public interest in buying environmentally friendly products increases, some companies have begun to claim their products are good for the environment, even when the opposite may be true. When products are a falsely marketed as natural, eco-friendly or green, it’s called “greenwashing.”

How can the consumer really know if a company’s claims are truthful? Taking a closer look at product labels and packaging can enable you to help the environment and become a smarter shopper.

First, every consumer should know the certification agencies and what products they certify.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture authorizes organic certification of agricultural products, from raw fruits and vegetables to processed products containing organic agricultural ingredients. On such products, you will see a “USDA organic” logo and/or the name of the certifying agent, and labels must disclose which ingredients were organically grown.

For nonagricultural products, environmentally friendly claims can be trusted if it is accompanied by a credible third-party certification, such as GreenSeal, EcoLogo or Design for the Environment (DfE). GreenSeal is an independent non-profit organization committed to environmental responsibility. EcoLogo started in Canada and has grown into North America’s largest environmental standard and certification mark. Design for the Environment (DfE) is a partnership program with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Manufacturers may put the DfE label on household and commercial products that meet stringent criteria for human and environmental health. Product lists are available on all three agency websites.

Second, consumers should read the ingredients on every product. Some commonly used chemicals should be avoided for personal health, others for environmental health. The Natural Resources Defense Council maintains a list of harmful chemicals in consumer products at .

Third, watch out for products featuring marketing language that is not supported by the ingredient label. For example, the claim “100% natural” should always be regarded skeptically. Many naturally occurring substances like arsenic and formaldehyde are nonetheless harmful. Also, look for irrelevant claims. Some products may trumpet “CFC-free” on their labels, even though CFCs were banned twenty years ago.

Be wary of phrases like “carbon intensity,” “clean technology,” and “sustainable development.” Statements such as these are unregulated, are difficult to verify, and may distract you from doing further research into the product.

Finally, since pictures are worth a thousand words, the packaging of toxic detergents and other cleaning products will sometimes feature nature scenes or images. While the manufacturers are not technically claiming their products are environmentally friendly, the images may create the false impression that the product is green.

To avoid confusion and misleading claims when you are purchasing green cleaning products, do your research and make sure you know what you are buying. Look for certifications on products, avoid harmful chemicals, and be wary of gimmicks that try to mislead you.

Published 02/25/2010 at

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