What Is Greenwashing?

The 411 on this dirty practice, and how to avoid it.


As if we didn’t have enough to worry about, greenwashing is something we should be worrying about too. Greenwashing is everywhere, from our skin-care products to our toothpaste, and if you’re not concerned about it, you probably should be. (Sorry! We know you have enough to worry about right now.)

Rather than putting our hands over our ears and hoping this will go away, we reached out to Lea d'Auriol, the founder of Oceanic Global, an organization that has been working to develop a Blue Standard (after the blue planet on which we live) that will help consumers and companies alike navigate greenwashing and commit to a truly eco-friendly world.

First of all, what is Greenwashing?

“Greenwashing is the misrepresentation of information to falsely indicate environmentally responsible practices or behavior,” d'Auriol tells us. “It exists in all spheres of sustainability and environmental action.”

Though Greenwashing is sometimes the innocent side effect of a company trying to adapt eco-friendly practices without fully following through, it’s often more malicious. It can be “a tool exploited by marketing teams to mislead consumers looking for sustainable choices,” she says. “Greenwashing can also be unintentional and come as a result of genuine desire to do good without the proper education and resources to make the best decision.”

How can I avoid accidentally falling into a Greenwashing trap?

It’s all about the lingo, baby. “Learn the language so you can make conscious choices,” d'Auriol advises. Just because something looks—or even says—it’s green doesn’t necessarily mean that it is.

“Look at the words and visuals that brands are using—for example, the color or word ‘green’ and words like ‘sustainable,’ and make sure they’re actually explaining how they’re being green or sustainable,” she says. “If there’s not more in-depth information available on the meaningful actions the company is taking, I would assume this is Greenwashing.”

What should I look out for on labels?

It’s wise to read packaging carefully—and make sure you know what’s really going into your products, which is a good idea anyway. “Read the labels and research them to see what they mean,” d’Auriol says.

Due to lack of regulation, words are often little more than just that. “‘Natural’ or ‘biodegradable’ may actually have no meaning, because legislation is just starting to catch up with the industry,” she says.

“Check that the labels or certifications are backed by credible institutions,” d’Auriol says. “Also know the limitations of those certifications—for example, USDA Organic means that most pesticides or chemical fertilizers are not used, but this does not cover all aspects of expected animal welfare.”

How should I shop for plastic-free products?

There are certain terms and phrases that are repeat offenders to avoid in the greenwashing world. These include:

Biodegradable: On marketing materials, this word “has even been banned in the state of California, because there’s no standardized definition for how long or in what conditions it will take a ‘biodegradable’ material to break down,” d’Auriol says.

Biobased: This means that a product “is at least in part made from plant-based materials, but it could still be a hybrid with petroleum-based plastics,” she says. “There is also no assurance as to whether the product is compostable or recyclable.”

Compostable plastics: This may sound good, but the fine print erases most of the benefit. “Pay close attention to which certifications the product has and what that means for required waste management,” d’Auriol says. “Most often, compostable plastics need to be treated in an industrial or commercial composting facility, which are not widely available.”

Oxo-degradable plastics: No, no, no! This term is all Greenwash, all the time. Oxo-degradable plastics “are actually fossil fuel–based plastics with an additive that breaks them down more quickly into microplastics, the most harmful form of plastic,” she says.

What are common products that contain plastics, and how should I avoid them?

For starters, you may have a few culprits sitting in your medicine cabinet. “Many beauty products and even toothpaste have plastic microbeads that contain harmful chemicals for both human and environmental health,” d’Auriol says. “Most of these are now banned in the U.S. and the U.K., but not all—check Ban the Microbead to search brands in your region.”

Next, you might turn your attention to your athleisure. “Synthetic clothing like spandex, polyester, and nylon are made of plastic textiles that shed microplastic fibers in the laundry as well as through wear,” she says. “Opt for natural fibers and go second-hand rather than buying new.”

And in case you’re not already panicking and stress-purging your leggings drawer, another spot you might find hidden plastics is your tea. “Look for plastic-free options,” d’Auriol suggests, like loose leaf tea. That’s an easy place to start.

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