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Understanding Greenwashing: What Eco-Friendly Really Means (Updated 2020)

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As you shop for groceries, have you ever experienced suddenly remembering a news bit about climate change? Or maybe a scene from the documentary An Inconvenient Truth? That random reminder of your environmental responsibility might have urged you to be mindful of your purchases.

Then, you browse through the grocery shelves and find various products displaying the labels  “organic,” “eco-friendly,” and “all-natural.”

These products seem appealing, no doubt. You might be willing to spend a few bucks more just to be free of “green guilt.”

Without people like you, no one’s ever going to keep our environmental impact in check. In fact, most people who use our eco-friendly kitchen products have principles that align with ours, which is to help save the environment.

But because more and more are becoming eco-conscious consumers, many manufacturers use greenwashing.

Now, the questions are: what is greenwashing anyway? Have you been a victim of greenwashing? What does it really mean to be eco-friendly?

We prepared this article to help make it easy for you to spot greenwashing, a tactic that goes against our principles. As an eco-conscious company, it’s our responsibility to protect wonderful people like you, who care for the environment, from falling victim to greenwashing.  

What Is Greenwashing?

Ever heard of the term “whitewashing”? Greenwashing is similar to that. 

Greenwashing is an unethical and dishonest marketing strategy. It’s when businesses market their products or services as eco-friendly when in fact, they’re not. The reason behind this is simple: to profit off trusting customers.

To put it differently, greenwashing is the practice of businesses investing money in branding themselves as environmentally friendly instead of actually practicing eco-friendly processes.

A Few Helpful Eco-Friendly Terms

The word “eco-friendly” is used a lot. So much so that it even has some variations like earth-friendly and environmentally friendly. 

No matter what its variation is, the straightforward meaning of eco-friendly is not environmentally harmful. This is a word that you have to be cautious about as it’s often included in greenwashing advertising.

Before we further talk about the topic of greenwashing and explain the ways to spot this in your everyday products, let’s take a look at some eco-friendly terms. This way, you can have an easier time steering clear of greenwashed products:

✓ Sustainability - is the practice of avoiding the depletion of finite resources while ensuring a balanced coexistence between the environment and humankind. 

For example, our coconut bowls are handcrafted from discarded coconut shells, while our wooden spoons and forks are carved from reclaimed offcuts. These materials were sustainably sourced from local farms in Vietnam and handcrafted by artisans.

So not only do these products help reduce waste—they also support the livelihoods of the rural community in Vietnam.

✓ Green - is a loose term related to the protection of the environment. It’s also a term that gets thrown around a lot to imply one’s interest to make ecologically responsible decisions.

✓ Organic - means that the product comes from or is made of organic ingredients. It typically refers to food or farming methods. 

Organic vegetables, for instance, must not have been grown with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals.

✓ All-natural - refers to any product that contains zero artificial ingredients or additives, like our coconut bowls, wooden utensils, and other eco-friendly kitchen products.

✓ Biodegradable - means that the product has the ability to break down into organic materials. Biodegradable products are usually made of natural materials. Check out our article about the differences between degradable, biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable.

Seven Sins of Greenwashing 

If there’s eternal damnation reserved for corporations, they should probably have committed one or more of the seven sins of greenwashing.

Back in 2007, TerraChoice, which was then acquired by the Underwriters Laboratories (UL), looked into the environmental claims of products in big-box stores. The researchers have found that 98% of products were greenwashed. From then on, they have developed the Seven Sins of Greenwashing to help consumers distinguish greenwashed products from legitimately eco-friendly ones.

Listed below are the seven sins of greenwashing as well as some examples of greenwashing:

1. Hidden Trade-off

This is when a company labels a product to be eco-friendly by highlighting certain attributes without recognizing other environmental issues. One example is paper made from recycled materials but finished off with harmful bleach.

2. No Proof

Companies that make environmental claims without providing facts or evidence fall under this category. For instance, manufacturers label their electrical appliances “energy-efficient” without any data or facts to back up their energy efficiency claim.

3. Vagueness

Companies guilty of this sin make use of broad or meaningless terms. An example of this is motor oil made of crude oil, a naturally occurring substance. When released into the ocean in the form of oil spills, it is, needless to say, damaging to the environment.

4. Worshipping False Labels

This sin refers to the outright deception to mislead customers: creating labels with fake certifications. A product with a label, designed by the company itself, certifying that it had undergone an official screening process is an example of this.

5. Irrelevance

Claims that are true but are unrelated to the current environmental issues. For instance, “phosphate-free” laundry detergents fall under this category since phosphates were already phased out long ago.

6. Lesser of Two Evils

The sin of lesser of two evils refers to the environmental claims that are technically true within a certain product category but may be environmentally harmful, in general. Some examples from TerraChoice are organic cigarettes, which still pose a problem to the environment despite them being organic.

7. Fibbing

Last but not least, the sin of fibbing pertains to claims that are just not true. Some examples are shampoos with a “certified organic” label that is officially nonexistent and  “Energy Star Certified” electrical devices that were not endorsed by the institution.

How to Avoid Fake Eco-Friendly Products

Using the seven sins of greenwashing as a source of inspiration, we have rounded up seven easy ways to help you spot and avoid fake eco-friendly products. So before you go ahead and purchase that “all organic” laundry detergent or “energy-efficient” light bulb, let this list guide you to make an informed decision.

Be Wary of Environmental Logos

As you shop for groceries, have you ever experienced seeing green logos or packaging with a bunch of leaves, a face blowing the wind personifying Mother Nature, and cute animals? 

Don’t be fooled by this. These products make use of imagery conveying the message that they care for the environment. 

While not all products with this description are deceptively eco-friendly, it’s best to look beyond the packaging. Beauty is only skin-deep or in this context, eco-friendly imagery is only sticker-deep.

Real environmentally friendly products are typically packaged with less ostentatious green imagery. 

Photo by @clairewilsonphoto

When we deliver our coconut bowls and other eco-friendly products, we package them with recycled paper printed with the pretty straightforward logo of our brand name.

Misleading Labels vs. Certification 

“Natural,” “organic,” “biodegradable,” and “eco-friendly” are words loosely thrown around these days. Like environmental logos, you have to look beyond the language and check for the products’ ingredients or materials.

If the product is labeled “all-natural” but its ingredients or materials aren’t really 100% natural, you can consider it greenwashing.

Another way to verify a product’s environmental claim is to look for any certifications. Some of these environmental certifications include organic and Fair Trade certifications. 

But third-party certifications involve lengthy processes and huge investments before a company earns them. So just because a product isn’t certified doesn’t mean that a company doesn’t observe ethical practices. Learn more about Fair Trade products in this article.

There are times when a brand, especially one that’s in the initial stages of business, cannot afford to apply for certifications. This kind of company might be working toward it and doing its part of upholding Fair Trade practices or organic quality.

Rainforest Bowls ensures that it practices Fair Trade. We reclaim discarded coconut shells and wooden offcuts, support the livelihoods of local farmers and artisans in Vietnam, and replant forests. We also donate to environmental charities to have 1 tree planted for every product sold

Brand Transparency 

Another great way to tell if a company is genuinely eco-friendly is brand transparency. 

Does the manufacturer tell the story about how their products are made? Or does the company disclose which country their products are from? Does the website show photos of the workshop or the crafting or sourcing process?

If the answers to this question are a resounding “no,” it’s most likely that the products are mass-manufactured in a factory producing high pollution levels.

Before you make your purchase, check the company’s website first to see if they have provided an authentic narrative about how their products are made.

Sanding coconut shells reveals the naturally rich brown colors of the our eco-friendly Coconut Bowls.

At Rainforest Bowls, we do our very best to be completely transparent with our customers. We love sharing our story about how our coconut bowls, wooden utensils, bamboo straws, and other eco-friendly products are made as much as we can.

Thanks to the skilled artisans in Vietnam, discarded coconut shells are given a new purpose: coconut bowls for your kitchen.

Vague Information Is Clearly a Problem 

This is related to the third and fifth sins of greenwashing: vagueness and irrelevance. 

Let’s say a cosmetic brand labels its product with the phrase “containing 5% organic ingredients” when it’s filled with harmful ingredients in the other 95%. 

Another example is a US-based cosmetic brand saying that their beauty products are cruelty-free when these products are made in China, one of the few countries in the world to require animal testing for cosmetic products.

One more common example is a company claiming that their baby bottles are BPA-free when the FDA banned the use of BPA on baby bottles last 2012. 

The bottom line is: go the extra mile to look into the company and its backstory. Maybe visit websites that offer lists of companies that are truly eco-friendly. 

Packaging 

No matter how much a brand tells how eco-friendly their products are or why their sustainable products are the best alternative to single-use plastic, an item bundled up with a bunch of bubble wrap can never back up their narrative.

Rather than promoting an eco-friendly lifestyle, a company using single-use plastic packaging can even do more harm than good, to the point that it’s extremely counterproductive. The problem with plastic is so severe that chances are you know its environmental impact by heart, so we’re not going into further detail about it.

There are lots of eco-friendly packaging options out there, from organic hemp fabric to plantable packaging, and companies know this for a fact. But plastic is cheap and readily available, so it’s always an easy option for many businesses.

Rainforest Bowls makes sure that from sourcing to delivery, everything is done with the environment in mind. We use recycled paper to cushion the products as well as to wrap them. Then, we pack them in biodegradable cardboard boxes.

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♬ original sound - Grant Schaffer

So when you’re eyeing a “sustainable” product, make sure that the company offers plastic-free packaging. That is probably the most straightforward way of checking whether they are indeed environmentally responsible or not.

Charity Proof 

The next step for companies offering eco-friendly products is being proactive. In other words, they can give back to the Earth by donating to environmental charities.

Yes, promoting sustainability through genuinely eco-friendly products is already a great move toward change. But if a company can afford it, it wouldn’t hurt to donate a portion of their profits for a cause, now would it?

As of this writing, Rainforest Bowls is in its first year of business, and we have planted over 10,000 trees in Vietnam and Africa via two environmental charities! This wouldn’t have been possible without the help of our eco-community. Visit these links to see our charity proof: Trees for the Future and One Tree Planted.

The reason behind our brand name is our mission to replant rainforests in Vietnam and plant 1 million trees or more. So apart from reclaiming discarded coconut shells and offering sustainable products, we would love to make a huge positive impact on the environment by taking charge of reforestation around the world.

Do Your Research 

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: do your research as much as possible. 

This is the only way to combat greenwashing and avoid fake eco-friendly products. Read the company’s About Us page, check the label for the ingredients or materials they used, and see the reviews about their products.

After doing your research, you can do your part by not giving your hard-earned money to companies that do not deserve it. Simply put, don’t purchase products from them, and try looking for better alternatives. 

The next step is to spread the word. Social media is a powerful tool, and you can use that to warn others against buying from unethical companies.

Summary

Greenwashing is unethical—all the more so as it serves as a breeding ground for consumer cynicism.

Rather than starting living sustainably with eco-friendly kitchen products, for instance, customers would tend to avoid these kinds of products because of the growing number of greenwashed products. And low demand results in low production, so what will be the future of a sustainable industry in the midst of greenwashing?

Still, eco-friendly products have an edge over others in this increasingly eco-conscious society, and rightfully so. As we start to become aware of our environmental impact, businesses and customers alike are taking the steps to create a greener economy and thus a better Earth.

If you’re in the market for eco-friendly kitchen products, why not start with us here at Rainforest Bowls? We even offer wholesale eco-friendly products for like-minded eco-conscious businesses. 

Wholesale If you’re wondering how eco-friendly our products are, you can look around our website, send us a message on Instagram, or shoot us an email at sales@rainforestbowls.com. We’ll be more than happy to tell you our story!

Author Profile

A mother of succulents, various indoor plants, and a white mini Chewbacca, Diet Immarie Salazar simply adores living closer to nature—literally. In her home nestled in the mountains, she frequently writes about how and why people should enjoy a more natural and eco-friendly lifestyle.


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