As any cosmetics consumer knows well, navigating what’s greenwashing and what’s actually natural can be difficult. Knowing which words are buzz, and which are real product benefits is in itself a challenge, but nowadays, the big marketing trend is greenwashing, and you should watch out for it.
What is greenwashing?
In any industry, greenwashing is a marketing strategy in which a product, service, or operation is presented as much more eco-friendly and healthy than it really is. When it comes to skincare, there are a lot of different ways in which greenwashing occurs – some of these ways are more egregious than others, and it is up to you, the consumer, to be informed and decide whether you are willing to tolerate greenwashing.
These days, even mass-market companies that create products with synthetic ingredients make overhyped or meaningless “green” claims.
To put the theory into practice and for your awareness, below are a few examples of common greenwashing practices.
Example 1) A product’s packaging is decorated with leaves, flowers, or other images that imply that the formulation is clean or natural. The product description mentions one or two plant-based ingredients, and their benefits. A closer look at the ingredients list shows that the product is mainly composed of synthetic ingredients like mineral oil, or silicone. The product is preserved with potentially harmful preservatives like parabens, formaldehyde donors, or phenoxyethanol.
Example 2) The name of the brand has a variation on the word organic in it. “Beautiful Organics”, “Cosm-organix”, etc. Companies are not bound by any standards, aside from copyright laws, when naming their brand. This means that a lot of brands imply that they are organic in their name, without actually using organic ingredients or adhering to any natural standards.
Example 3) A cosmetics brand starts out independently owned, and adheres to strict ethical standards in both their business practices and their formulation. After building a great reputation, the brand is purchased by a larger company that doesn’t have the same standards. After the sale, the new parent company can go as far as to fire all of the original staff, or completely change product formulations (usually in a way that makes the product cheaper to produce). Even if none of this happens, and the formula and sourcing remain healthy, sustainable, and ethical, the money with the products are purchased still goes into the unethical parent company. Without careful reading or researching, the consumer has no way of knowing that the ownership of the brand has changed.
Example 4) A brand’s website or packaging boast “organic ingredients”, “natural”, “paraben-free”. It might mention an environmental NGO (non-governmental organization) that it donates money to or occasionally collaborates with, but without going into clear detail. A closer look at the company’s sourcing practices or formulation, however, will show unethical sourcing practices, or a formula loaded with unnatural or harmful ingredients, in addition to natural ones.
What about regulation?
As far as greenwashing is concerned, there is very little regulation. A company opens itself up to lawsuits when it makes egregious marketing claims, but it’s up to an individual to actually go ahead and file that lawsuit. That means that words like “organic”, “natural”, and “plant-based” mean….just about nothing.
There are some regulatory bodies that enforce their own standards. This includes the Ecocert, USDA, COSMOs, Oasis and many more. Some of the standards are stricter than others, so it’s important to know what they mean when looking for cosmetic products.
In Europe, the COSMOS standard is becoming one of the most widely used references, because it represents the standardization and collaboration of many previous disconnected certifying bodies like EcoCert, Soil Association, and COSMEBIO.
Under the COSMOS standard, there are two types of certification: Natural Certification, which requires that 98% of ingredients in a formula be of natural origins, and Organic Certification which requires that in addition to having 98% natural ingredients, 20% of the finished formula be certified organic (this takes into account that most cosmetic formulas are around 70% water). COSMOS also has a list of approved ingredients, so you can feel safe that a cosmetic certified by COSMOS will never contain endocrine disruptors or formaldehyde donors.
The USDA is the leading certifying body in the United States. The USDA has 4 labeling categories: 100% Organic, which is when all ingredients (excluding salt and water) are certified organic, Organic, which is when 95% of the ingredients are organic (excluding salt and water) Made with Organic Ingredients, which is when 70% of the ingredient are organic, and lastly, when less than 70% of the ingredients are organic, a company is allowed to state which of the ingredients are organic on the ingredients label.
There is room for nuance
Behind every great brand there has to be a philosophy. At Nairian, our philosophy dictates that our sourcing must be as local as possible, our farming practices must be sustainable and ethical, our formulas must must be truly natural and free of any ingredients that may potentially harm one’s health or the environment. We also want our products to last more than a week once opened, so we use naturally derived and organically certified preservatives like vinegars and sodium salts. We believe that using honey and beeswax is good for the skin, and also helps promote beekeeping, which is very important for sustaining healthy ecosystems – even though this means some of our products are not vegan.
Some brands, on the other hand, might not mind synthetic ingredients but instead focus on being vegan. Another brand might care most about being sustainable, and will have very ethical sourcing and a robust recycling program.
The marketing team will always focus on the positives of each brand’s philosophy, and will ignore the negatives – to us, that does not necessarily mean that they are greenwashing. The problem is when the marketing copy and packaging designs are actively misleading.
It is up to you, as a consumer, to be well informed about ingredients and regulations, and to decide what your personal standards are. Do you care most about avoiding endocrine disruptors, or is your primary concern environmental protection? Once you know what is important to you, making smart decisions about your beauty and skincare products becomes much easier.