It seems like everything is “eco-friendly” these days. From food, to clothes, to even toilet paper, we’re bombarded with a slew of claims when we do our shopping. So just how exactly do we get to the bottom of actual eco-friendly products versus those that are just trying to earn a big company an extra dollar?
If you’re trying to be a conscious consumer, but are finding it difficult to do so in today’s world, then we’ve put together five tips for anyone wondering if their favorite “eco-friendly” products are actually, well, eco-friendly.
Beware of Greenwashing
We won’t spend too much talking about greenwashing because we’ve covered it in another article. But here’s the quick and dirty, literally:
Green is gold these days. Customers are willing to pay more for items that are “eco-friendly” and some of the world’s biggest brands are figuring out ways to cash in on this. They’re doing so by falsely convincing consumers that their goods, products, services, or the company itself is taking steps to consider environmental responsibility—even when it’s likely that they’re doing the bare minimum (or nothing at all).
A large corporation may even use greenwashing to promote a specific “green” practice to cover up the environmental harm they’re causing. So, even as a conscious consumer, we may fall prey to this greenwashing and end up doing even more harm to the planet.
Fortunately, organizations like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and CorpWatch are taking steps to challenge greenwashing on a large level. But what about when you’re in the grocery store aisle or shopping online—how do you know if products are actually eco-friendly?
That’s where the following tips come in handy.
How Do You Know if Products Are Actually Eco-Friendly?
1. Examine All Claims
We’ve all been there, faced with two decisions: one yogurt with plain packaging and another featuring a picture of a farm, with some trees scattered in the background. After a quick glance, it can seem that the latter option is by far the more eco-friendly option.
Don’t be fooled by vague imagery.
Instead, look for specific claims, and study the language and the context. Any brand can claim that their products are “all natural” because, when you think about it, everything comes from nature—even the world’s most toxic chemicals.
So, instead of taking descriptors like “natural,” “green,” “eco-friendly,” or “farm fresh” at face value, do a little extra reading. If a product really is natural, don’t you think a brand would want to share more about it?
Look for details that can help you feel convinced that a product is actually what it claims to be. Does it talk about the farms where the ingredients were sourced? Does it mention anything about any practices? Does their website or the packaging explain anything about why certain ingredients were chosen, and how those fare better than other ones?
It’s likely that you wouldn’t trust a car seller who said that the car was in “excellent condition” but couldn’t provide you with any additional information, so why would you do the same for a product that you’re putting in your mouth, on your body, or bringing into your home?
2. Look for Certifications
How great is it when you can trust a claim…without having to do any of the work?! That’s where certifications come in. A certification by a reputable third-party organization makes our lives much easier by letting us know that a product is actually eco-friendly.
So, what exactly do you look for?
There are a lot of certifications out there, and this is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are a few you might see for different types of goods:
- USDA Certified Organic – typically used for food (along with some other products) that are produced without conventional pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers
- Non-GMO Project Verified – means that the products (mostly food) do not contain genetically modified ingredients
- Certified Naturally Grown – might be seen at farmer’s markets and small local grocery stores, and is very similar to organic
- Fair Trade Certified – covers a large range of products that have been produced by farmers and workers who receive above-average wages and work in safe environments
- Green Seal – certifies that a product has been produced in a way that minimizes environmental footprint
- Safer Choice – the EPA’s Safer Choice logo can be on products (typically cleaning products) that do not contain their list of prohibited substances
- Leaping Bunny – commonly seen with beauty care products, means that animal testing has not been used
- Environmental Working Group (EWG) Verified™ – products do not contain any harmful chemicals
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) – used in fashion products that have been produced in an ecologically and socially responsible manner
- Global Recycle Standard (GRS) – used in fashion products (along with some others) that have been produced with recycled materials
- Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certified – used for any wood-based products that have been produced in an environmentally and socially responsible manner
- Certified B Corporation – used for a business that meets strict environmental and social standards
- Green America – businesses that use socially just and sustainable principles
EcoLabel Index also has a great resource that describes 456 different ecolabels.
3. Do Your Research
If you don’t see a certification and aren’t convinced by the claims, there are other ways you can get to the bottom of whether a product is truly eco-friendly or not.
You can check out the company’s PR and spend some time on their About Us page. For brands that are truly eco-friendly, you’ll typically find a specific page of their website dedicated to their sustainability efforts. You can also look for published sustainability reports, corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports, and awards or accolades.
You can also “follow the money” by looking into donations (if any) the company makes. You can even determine who owns the brand in question. You might be surprised to find that “small” or “family-owned” brands are actually owned by large corporations (this is especially the case with food products).
4. Follow the Brand on Social Media
Here’s a fun way to determine if a product is eco-friendly or not: Get to know them on social media! Chances are, a brand isn’t going to produce a super eco-friendly product and then not discuss how and why on their social media page.
So, if you see a supposedly environmentally-friendly product but the brand isn’t proud enough to brag about it (or they don’t follow/mention other environmental organizations/issues), then you might want to take their claims with a grain of salt.
5. Consider Hidden Trade-Offs
When it comes to a product being truly eco-friendly, you should look beyond the product itself. Yes, you may have found that perfect eco-friendly water bottle that’s made from recycled ocean plastic—but if it’s produced in a way that pollutes local waterways with toxic chemicals, then is it so great for our planet after all?
When Something Seems Too Good to Be True…
At the end of the day, simply using your best judgement and intuition might help you determine if a product is truly eco-friendly or not. If a product is making ludicrous claims to save the planet, but they’re not elaborating on how, then it’s probably best to leave the product on the shelf.
Speaking of best judgment, we’d love to know how you sniff out a truly sustainable product! Give us your best tips in the comments below!