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Watch Out For Greenwashing at the Cosmetic’s Counter

April 18, 2009

A report published recently by Environmental Marketing company Terrachoice this week claims that many cosmetic products are “greenwashing” consumers. The article was brought to the attention of the cosmetics industry by website Cosmetic Design. The full report can be accessed through the Terra Choice website by following this link.

Greenwashing has become the popular term used to describe marketing practices that depict a product as better for the environment than it really is.  As the environmental debate hots up and concerns over our “carbon footprints” rise,  more and more businesses  are looking for any opportunity to get onto the  bandwagon of turning Green to Gold!  Now, while  installing energy saving light bulbs and recycling office paper are a good first step for any business, it would be misleading for the business in question to then start marketing its self as “green”.  It is time to put the record straight.

Q) What should a “green” product look like?

A) This will depend on the potential purchasers values and which product they are looking to buy.   There are many certifying bodies around that spell out their criteria on what is and what isn’t worthy of their “green stamp of approval”.    For cosmetics these standards focus heavily on the ingredients that go into the formulation. Many standards will only allow vegetable based ingredients which have been manufactured with minimal processing while other standards are less rigid.   The standards will also set out their views on how much of a formulation needs to conform to their rules in order for it to be given a stamp of approval. In some cases only 70% of a formulation (excluding water) have to conform to the standard.  Whether choosing products with vegetable based ingredients is better for the environment than  products containing petroleum and silicone based ingredients is debatable. After all, vegetable oils have to be grown somewhere and still require harvesting, processing and delivering to the manufacturing plant.

So, in the world of “green certification” ingredient choice is only one part of the equation. Consumers should also look out for the certifying bodies measurement of  things like “total impact”  or “life cycle analysis”. This measurement takes into account the products impact in the following areas: Sourcing and manufacture of ingredients, product manufacture, packaging, advertising,  transportation, impact of product in use and disposal.   Pfew, a lot to think through!

Q) OK, so for a product to be green it has to hit lots of boxes, which box has the biggest environmental impact?

A) Each product would be different but usually the transportation of the product (from ingredients to your bathroom) racks up the carbon footprint. UK supermarket Tesco introduced Food Miles a while back as a way of informing consumers of the distance travelled by their food. The more miles, the larger the impact!   The rise in popularity of the 100 mile cafe where all food sourced is from the local area shows that there is a market for local wonders.   Next to transport, it has been claimed that the next biggest impact is in the products use. Shampoo’s are rinsed into the waterway with plenty of water – a double impact!  Things like ingredient choice, packaging and method of distribution will play a part – try to buy bulk or family packs when possible and re-fill not land-fill…..

Q) So how do I know if I am being “Greenwashed”?

A)  It is good to remember that while your personal care products and cosmetics do have an environmental impact, they should be put into perspective.  As an individual, the food that we eat, how we move from place to place, the clothes that we wear and the appliances that we have in our homes are all likely to impact. It is about balance!

*Look for products that are certified by respected and well recognised bodies and do your research to make sure that their values match yours!

* Show me the evidence! Again, the certifying body should request this from the manufacture before issuing the stamp of approval. If a product claims to be green demand to know how and why. Don’t fall for the beautiful green bottle with a tree on the label without hard proof.

* Make sure that the virtuous claims are relevant. A product may sound green and environmentally sound because it claims to be biodegradable but really, do you need to even buy those nappy disposal bags?  and “plant based” next to Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulphate is not that exciting as pretty much all SLES used in personal care is.

* Does the company live up to its products claims? If you are buying a product being manufactured by the biggest polluter the planet has ever seen, their organic and all natural lip balm may make you feel better but it won’t save the planet! Make sure the manufacturer walks the walk by checking their corporate report and environmental policies.

* Is the product useful?  OK, so with cosmetics it is often more about desire than functionality but can coloured hairspray ever be “green”?

The massive rise in products claiming to be green has made the Terra Choice report a must read. Go out and enjoy your cosmetic shopping but make sure to take your green radar with you. Let us know your green washing stories so that we can help to steer the green ship into safe waters!

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