Those trendy new leggings "made from recycled materials" and pricey moisturizers featuring "plant-based ingredients" might not be so eco-friendly after all. Here's how to distinguish the greenwashed from the legit — and why it matters.

By Megan Falk
June 14, 2021
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Whether you're itching to buy a new piece of activewear or an upscale new beauty product, you likely start your search with a list of must-have features as lengthy as one you'd take to a realtor while looking for a house. A pair of workout leggings may need to be squat-proof, sweat-wicking, high-waisted, ankle-length, and within budget. A facial serum might need dermatologist-approved ingredients, acne-fighting components, moisturizing qualities, and travel-friendly size in order to score a spot in your routine. 

Now, more consumers are tacking "good for the environment" onto their lists of essential characteristics. In an April survey conducted by LendingTree of more than 1,000 Americans, 55 percent of respondents said they were willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products, and 41 percent of the millennials reported dropping more cash on eco-friendly products than ever before. Simultaneously, a growing number of consumer goods are boasting sustainability claims on their packages; in 2018, products marketed as "sustainable" made up 16.6 percent of the market, up from 14.3 percent in 2013, according to research from New York University's Stern's Center for Sustainable Business.

But contrary to that old proverb, just because you see it, doesn't mean you should believe it. As public interest in eco-friendly products grows, so does the practice of greenwashing.

What Is Greenwashing, Exactly?

Simply put, greenwashing is when a company presents itself, a good, or a service - either in its marketing, packaging, or mission statement - as having more of a positive impact on the environment than it actually does, says Ashlee Piper, a sustainability expert and the author of Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet. (Buy It, $15, amazon.com). "[It's done by] oil companies, food products, clothing brands, beauty products, supplements," she says. "It's insidious - it's everywhere." 

Case in point: A 2009 analysis of 2,219 products in North America that made "green claims" - including health and beauty, home, and cleaning products - found that 98 percent were guilty of greenwashing. Toothpastes were touted as "all natural" and "certified organic" without any proof to back it up, sponges were vaguely called "earth-friendly," and body lotions claimed to be "'naturally pure" - a term most consumers automatically assume to mean "safe" or "green," which isn't always the case, according to the study.

But are these statements really all that big of a deal? Here, experts break down the impact greenwashing has on both companies and consumers, as well as what to do when you spot it.

The Rise of Greenwashing

Thanks to the internet, social media, and old-fashioned word-of-mouth communication, consumers in recent years have become more educated on the environmental and social issues linked with the production of consumer goods, says Tara St. James, the founder of Re:Source(d), a consultancy platform for sustainability strategy, supply chain, and textile sourcing within the fashion industry. One such issue: Each year, the textile industry, of which clothing manufacturing represents nearly two-thirds, relies on 98 million tons of non-renewable resources - such as oil, fertilizers, and chemicals - for production. In the process, 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity focused on accelerating the transition to a lower-waste economy. (That's just one reason why it's so important to shop for sustainable activewear.)

This newfound wokeness spurred an increased demand for responsibly made products and business models, which companies initially assumed would be a short-lived, niche trend, she explains. But those predictions rang false, says St. James. "Now that we know there's a climate emergency, I think companies are starting to take it seriously," she says.

That combination of high consumer demand for eco-friendly products and brands' sudden need to become sustainable - meaning making and producing in a way that doesn't deplete the earth and the population of its resources - created what St. James calls a "perfect storm" for greenwashing. "Companies now wanted to get on the bandwagon but maybe didn't know necessarily how, or they didn't want to invest the time and resources to make the changes that are necessary," she says. "So they adopted these practices of communicating things that they're doing, even though they may not be doing them." For example, an activewear company might call its leggings "sustainable" even though the material contains just 5 percent recycled polyester and is produced thousands of miles from where it's being sold, increasing the garment's carbon footprint even more. A beauty brand may say its lipsticks or body creams made with organic ingredients are "eco-friendly" even though they contain palm oil - which contributes to deforestation, habitat destruction for endangered species, and air pollution.

In some cases, a company's greenwashing is blatant and intentional, but most of the time, St. James believes it's caused simply by a lack of education or an inadvertent spread of misinformation within a company. In the fashion industry, for example, the design, manufacturing, and sales and marketing departments tend to work separately, so much of the decision making doesn't happen when all parties are within the same room, she says. And this disconnect can create a situation that looks a lot like the broken game of telephone. "Information might be diluted or miscommunicated from one group to the next, and by the time it gets to the marketing department, the outward message is not exactly identical to how it started, whether it's originating from the sustainability department or the design department," says St. James. "Conversely to that, the marketing department either may not understand what they're communicating outwardly, or they're changing the messaging to make it more 'palatable' to what they think the consumer wants to hear."

Compounding the problem is the fact that there isn't much oversight. The Federal Trade Commission's Green Guides provide some guidance on how marketers can avoid making environmental claims that are "unfair or deceptive" under Section 5 of the FTC Act; however, they were last updated in 2012 and don't address the use of the terms "sustainable" and "natural." The FTC can file a complaint if a marketer makes misleading claims (think: saying an item has been certified by a third party if it hasn't or calling a product "ozone-friendly," which inaccurately conveys that the product is safe for the atmosphere as a whole). But only 19 complaints have been filed since 2015, with just 11 in the beauty, health, and fashion industries.

The Impact of Greenwashing

Calling a workout top "sustainable" or putting the words "all natural" on a face moisturizer's packaging may seem like NBD, but greenwashing is problematic for both companies and consumers. "It creates a sense of distrust between consumers and brands, and so the brands that are actually doing what they claim to be doing are now being scrutinized in the same way as brands that aren't doing anything," says St. James. "Then consumers won't trust anything at all - claims of certifications, claims of supply chain responsibility, claims of real sustainability initiatives - and so it makes it even more difficult for potential change in the industry." (Related: 11 Sustainable Activewear Brands Worth Breaking a Sweat In)

Not to mention, it puts the burden on the consumer to research a brand to find out if the environmental benefits its touting are legit, says Piper. "For those of us who really want to vote with our dollar, which is arguably one of the most important things we can do as individuals, it makes it difficult to make these good choices," she says. And by unknowingly buying products from a brand that's guilty of greenwashing, you're "enabling them to continue greenwashing and muddying the waters of sustainability with your financial support," adds St. James. (Another good choice you can make with your dollar: Investing it in minority-owned businesses.)

The Biggest Red Flags of Greenwashing

If you're looking at a product with some potentially sketchy claims, you can generally tell it's been greenwashed if you spot one of these red flags. You can also look to the nonprofit Remake or the app Good on You, both of which rate fashion brands based on the sustainability of their practices.

And if you're still unsure or just want more info, don't be afraid to question and challenge companies about their practices (via social media, email, or snail mail) - whether it's inquiring about who made your athleisure and where or the exact amount of recycled plastic that goes into your face wash's bottle, says St. James. "It's not pointing fingers or laying blame, but it's really asking for accountability and transparency from the brands and empowering the consumer to know more about how things are made and where they're made," she explains.

1. It claims to be "100 percent sustainable."

When there's a numerical value attached to the product's, service's, or company's sustainability claim, there's a good chance it's being greenwashed, says St. James. "There is no percentage around sustainability because sustainability is not a scale - it's an umbrella term for a variety of different strategies," she explains. Remember, sustainability encompasses constantly changing issues surrounding social welfare, labor, inclusivity, waste and consumption, and the environment, making it impossible to quantify, she says.

2. The claims are vague.

Obscure statements such as "made from sustainable materials" or "made from recycled content" printed boldly on apparel swing tags (the plastic or paper tag you take off clothing after you buy it) are also a cause for caution, says St. James. "Especially if you're looking at activewear, it's important to not just look at what the hang tag says because it may just say 'made from recycled plastic bottles,' and that seems great," she says. "But when you look at the care label, it might say five percent recycled polyester and 95 percent polyester. That five percent is not a great impact."

The same goes for broad terms like "green," "natural," "clean," "eco-friendly," "conscious," and even "organic," adds Piper. "I think you see with beauty products that some companies [market themselves as] 'clean beauty' - that might mean there are fewer chemicals to put on your body, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the manufacturing process or the packaging are eco-friendly," she explains. (Related: What's the Difference Between Clean and Natural Beauty Products?)

3. There aren't any certifications to back up the claims. 

If an activewear brand says their apparel is made from 90 percent organic cotton or a beauty brand declares itself to be 100 percent carbon neutral without providing any evidence to support it, take those claims with a grain of salt. Your best bet to ensure these types of statements are genuine is to look for reliable third-party certifications, says St. James.

For apparel made from organic cotton and other natural fibers, St. James recommends looking for a Global Organic Textile Standard Certification. This certification ensures the textiles are made with at least 70 percent certified organic fibers and certain environmental and labor standards are met during processing and manufacturing. As for clothes containing recycled materials, Piper recommends looking for an Ecological and Recycled Textile Standard certification from Ecocert, a company that verifies the exact percent of recycled materials in a fabric and where it's sourced from, as well as other environmental claims it may make (think: percent of water savings or CO2 savings).

Fair Trade certifications, such as the Fair Trade Certified designation from Fair Trade USA, will also ensure your clothing is made in factories that commit to upholding internationally-recognized labor standards, providing greater benefits to workers, making efforts to protect and restore the environment and continuously work toward cleaner (aka less damaging) production. For beauty products, Ecocert also has a certification for organic and natural cosmetics called COSMOS that guarantees environmentally friendly production and processing, responsible use of natural resources, the absence of petrochemical ingredients, and more.

FTR, most brands that have these environmental certifications are going to want to flaunt it, says Piper. "They're going to be super transparent about it, especially because all the certifications can be very expensive to get and take a lot of time, so they're going to have those proudly on their packaging," she explains. Still, these certifications can be pricey and often require a lot of time and energy to apply for, which may make it difficult for small businesses to score them, says Piper. That's when it's valuable to reach out to the brand and ask about their claims, materials, and ingredients. "If you ask a question to try to find an answer around sustainability and they're giving you weird legalese as a response or it just feels like they're not answering your question, I'd move onto a different company."

4. The company touts its products as recyclable or biodegradable.

While St. James wouldn't go as far as saying a product that boasts its recyclability or biodegradability is guilty of greenwashing, it is something to be conscious of when buying a new polyester activewear set or plastic jar of anti-aging cream. "It does contribute to the impression that a brand is more responsible than it maybe is," she explains. "In theory, maybe the material used in this jacket is recyclable, but how does the consumer actually recycle it? What systems are in place in your region? If I'm being honest with you, there's not a lot."

ICYDK, only half of Americans have automatic access to curbside recycling and just 21 percent have access to drop-off services, according to The Recycling Project. And even when recycling services are available, recyclables are frequently contaminated with non-recyclable items (think: plastic straws and bags, eating utensils) and dirty food containers. In those cases, large batches of material (including items that could be recycled) ends up being incinerated, sent to landfills, or washed into the ocean, according to the Columbia Climate School. TL;DR: Dumping your empty container of hand lotion in the green bin doesn't automatically mean it's going to be broken down and transformed into something new.

Similarly, a product that's "compostable" or "biodegradable" could be better for the environment under the right conditions, but most people don't have access to municipal composting, says Piper. "[The product] would go into landfill, and landfills are notoriously starved of oxygen and microbes and sunlight, all the items that are necessary for even a biodegradable thing to decompose," she explains. Not to mention, it puts the responsibility for the product's environmental impact on the consumer, who now has to figure out how to dispose of their product once it's reached the end of its life, says St. James. "The customer shouldn't have that responsibility - I think it should be the brand," she says. (See: How to Make a Compost Bin)

How to Be a Responsible Consumer and Create Change

After you see some of those tell-tale signs an athleisure set or shampoo is being greenwashed, the ideal action to take would be to avoid buying that product until the company changes its practices, says St. James. "I think the best things we can do is starve those products of our money," adds Piper. "If you're feeling particularly activist-y and you have time and bandwidth, it's worth writing a succinct letter or email to the company's director of sustainability or corporate social responsibility on LinkedIn." In that quick note, explain that you're skeptical of the brand's claims and call on it to provide accurate information, says St. James.

But buying genuinely eco-friendly products and avoiding the dupes isn't the only - or the best - move you can make to reduce your footprint. "The most responsible thing a consumer can do, besides not purchasing anything, is to take good care of it, keep it a long time, and make sure it's passed on - not discarded or sent to landfills," says St. James.

And if you're down and able to make your hair mask from scratch or thrift your activewear, even better, adds Piper. "While it's wonderful that people want to buy more sustainably, the best thing we can do is shop secondhand or just not buy stuff," she says. "You don't have to fall into the trap of you have to buy your way into sustainability because that's simply not the solution."