Monday, October 14, 2013


Last week, I wrote about “pinkwashing,” which is rampant in the month of October. The more common form of color deception, however, is greenwashing, which occurs all year long. Greenwashing is the practice of making misleading claims about a product’s environmental benefits.

A major problem with the term “green” as it is commonly used is that “the environment” is often narrowly defined. The focus tends to be on a handful of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, the indoor environments in which people spend most of their time are often overlooked.

Even those products that take a wider view of the environment and claim to be non-toxic often aren’t. An article on “green” cleaning products notes that one of the most widely-used products in the category contains up to four percent of a chemical known as  2-butoxyethanol. The substance is a petrochemical solvent linked to a wide range of problems including cancer, osteoarthritis, reproductive problems, and birth defects. The article reported on a study that analyzed 25 cleaning products, half of which claimed to be green, organic, or natural. The products emitted a total of 133 different chemicals, about one fourth of which are classified as toxic or hazardous. Every product emitted at least one chemical known to be toxic.

A publication entitled "The Sins of Greenwashing" lists the following problems with “green” claims:

  • Sin of the Hidden Trade-off – Focusing on one set of attributes while ignoring other important factors

  • Sin of No Proof – Making unsubstantiated claims that aren’t verified by reliable third parties

  • Sin of Vagueness – Making claims that are broad or poorly defined

  • Sin of Irrelevance – Making claims that are true, but irrelevant, such as claiming to be free of chemicals that have already been banned

  • Sin of Lesser of Two Evils – Making claims that are true, but distract from larger risks

  • Sin of Fibbing – Making claims that are simply false

  • Sin of Worshiping False Labels – Implying falsely, through words or images, that a product has been endorsed by a third party.

Although greenwashing is rampant, some labels and terms mean more than others do. As I wrote in a previous postConsumer Reports maintains a website with a label search function which can be helpful. Labeling can be misleading and inconsistent, but that doesn’t mean that all products are created equal. Some are definitely less problematic than others.

As in other areas of chemical toxicity, it’s important to work for change while simultaneously doing what we can now to protect ourselves and those around us. Truly “green” cleaning, for example, is really not hard to achieve. As I noted in a previous post on cleaning, water is the universal solvent. Vinegar, lemon juice, baking soda and castile soap can also clean many, many things. The internet is full of recipes, hints, and suggestions. There are a lot of things that are hard to control. It makes sense to control what we can.

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