Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – the environmental ethos that has been etched into our minds since elementary school. More recently, these words or other derivatives have been appearing on t-shirts, cosmetics, and even coffee cups. But how much thought is actually given to the actions that they purport to suggest? Does the mass production of “environmentally-friendly” t-shirts realistically help to reduce over-consumption? Are cosmetic companies actually putting reusable shampoo bottles on the market? Is 10% of that Starbucks cup really post-consumer recycled material?

Global climate change and the ongoing energy crisis have forced many of us to adopt a more eco-friendly way of thinking. We have begun to realize that we do not live in an isolated bubble that is selectively permeable to the outside world. People are now considering where things come from – and where things go when they are done with them. This is undoubtedly progress towards global sustainability, and a step in the right direction.

But in a genuine attempt to improve the health of our families and our planet, we are content with looking in supermarkets and retail outlets for the so-called “greenest” products. Unfortunately, upon closer inspection, one cannot help but wonder if the “green” in “going green” is referring to environmental consciousness – or the color of profit.

Corporations have shrewdly spotted this newfound eco-friendly mindset and translated it into another marketing fad; such schemes have become another vehicle for competition, and companies who haven’t joined the race are left in the dust. We are seeing vague or unfounded claims on labels – such as ‘all-natural’ or ‘Earth-friendly’ – in hopes of appealing to the environmentally-conscious consumer. This phenomenon, known as “Greenwashing,” can be found in nearly all consumption-based markets – from food to cleaning products to cars – and is successfully deceiving customers across the board.

TerraChoice, an environmental marketing firm, outlines the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing” that companies use to mislead consumers. One such method, the “Sin of No Proof,” refers to the claim that a product is “green” without verification from a reliable third party. These marketing ploys have made it almost impossible to pick up a product without seeing it adorned with some kind of contrived environmental reference.

Another “sin,” the “Lesser of Two Evils,” addresses the all-too-common mistake of focusing on a product’s label rather than the product itself. Advertising an SUV as fuel-efficient or a plastic water bottle as environmentally friendly (ahem, Poland Spring “Eco-shape”) is inherently hypocritical. Simply changing the color of packaging or modifying the advertising slogan has no value if the product itself is detrimental to the environment.

The last and probably most discouraging sin is the “Sin of Fibbing”: companies are falsely and intentionally labeling their products as environmentally-friendly. While our intentions may be good, such traps lead to a backfire in the sustainability movement.

How do we evade this corporate deceit? How can we distinguish between the companies that are truly environmentally-friendly and those whose primary motivation is sheer greed? The most consequential decisions might be made behind closed doors, but as consumers, we wield real power. It is our job to be skeptics. It is our job to investigate the claims of corporations. And it is our job to look at the big picture.

When making purchases, take a moment to examine the product. Do its environmental ornaments hold any weight? Labels like Eco-Logo, FSC, Green Guard, GreenSeal, SFI, EPEAT, USDA Organic, and WaterSense are all legitimate and assure a certified environmentally-friendly manufacturing process. Another more obvious indicator of green product is the packaging – is it biodegradable? A general rule of thumb: choose cardboard or biodegradable polyester over plastic or Styrofoam. Also, buying in bulk can reduce your overall waste output.

But most importantly, before taking the product off the shelf, consider whether you need it in the first place; sometime in the future, whether in an hour or fifty years’ time, part of what you’re holding will end up festering in a landfill. This brings us back to the first and most important of our three “Rs”: Reduce. Though it requires proactive thought, and is often difficult in such a consumerist society, reducing consumption is by far the most environmentally-friendly way we can make a difference individually – and dodge the deceptive craft of Greenwashing altogether.


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