Greenwashing: Know Your Ingredients

As originally featured on www.healthybabynetwork.com

Compared to the more limited choices our mothers were given, the retail landscape has become much more difficult to navigate.  Not only do we need to compare prices but because of the knowledge that is now available regarding our daily toxin exposures, the actual ingredients of the products we purchase have become more and more important.  But as we scan the store shelves, the sheer number of items and the compelling labelling of most, can be quite confusing.  To further complicate your shopping experience, everything is not always as it appears to be.

“Greenwashing” is a term defined as using marketing practices to give the perception that a company or product is environmentally friendly.  An ethical transgression, leading people to believe that a product is natural and chemical free when in fact that is not the case.   Many household products and cleaners, personal care items, even foods contain chemicals that have been implicated in serious health complications - everything from endocrine and reproductive problems to neurologic issues and even cancer.  Granted most of the research that has implicated certain chemicals, studied levels that far exceed today’s permitted amounts, but to say this exaggerates the danger does not take into consideration the cumulative effect of multiple toxins.

Greenwashing is a significant and prevalent problem.  Many times I too have been lured by the "green" bottle or the words “botanical ingredients” and “environmentally safe”. Yet on closer examination, there doesn’t seem to be anything natural at all about ingredients like polyethylene glycol or sodium laureth sulfate or the myriad of other chemicals that even I as a physician have difficulty pronouncing.  And what exactly does parfum or fragrance stand for?  Other terms such as “contains organic ingredients”, “nontoxic ingredients”, “hypoallergenic”, “vegan” and “cruelty-free” may be catchy but are also misleading as there is no standardization to the use of these phrases. Bottom line is one or two “natural” ingredients hardly justifies the label “all natural” on the whole product.

The issue is that there is very little policing when it comes to the natural product industry to hold companies accountable for their claims. And to put our trust in what seems acceptable to the marketplace (it’s available therefore it must be ok) is in fact putting ourselves and our families at risk.

Due to rising public awareness and demand, these issues are beginning to be addressed. To reassure consumers that they are purchasing a safe and trustworthy product, labels are being developed by government and independent certification programs.  The most common and recognized seal of approval is “USDA Organic” which continues to be a trusted marker indicating that those products are 95 to 100% organic. In Canada, those products carry the “Canada Organic / Biologique Canada” label.  There are other lesser known labels specific to different industries such as “BDIH Certified Natural Cosmetics”, “Whole Foods Premium Body Care Seal” and “IOS Natural & Organic Cosmetic Standard” in the personal care product sector.

Although many consumer advocacy and environmental groups are petitioning governments to make companies accountable for the descriptive terms used and standardization of labeling practices, we as consumers have to remain knowledgeable and vigilant about what we purchase.  Until there is greater accountability and transparency in the "natural" and "organic" industry, the responsibility lies with us to become educated on the specific ingredients to avoid.  These will be specifically outlined in an upcoming article "What Ingredients to Avoid in Personal Care Products".



Welcome to the world of greenwashing.
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