Eco-Guilt & Sins of Greenwashing

I filmed a television show yesterday and then had a Healthy Home party.  What was apparent to me from both was that eco-guilt runs rampant.  Universally, the people I spoke with wanted to do some thing to save Mama Earth, go green, be non toxic and live healthier lives.  At the same time, it was readily apparent that there is a lot of mis information out there, and confusion regarding various claims of healthy, natural, earth-friendly, green, etc., especially in relation to personal care/beauty products.

So how do you assuage your eco-guilt in the face of competing, misleading green claims?  My simple answer is – be an informed, conscious consumer.  That’s seems overly simplistic, but its the truth.

This morning, I was forwarded this great article in Newsweek about the sins of green washing.  And I think it is telling.  The article states:

Last year TerraChoice sent researchers into big-box stores in North America to evaluate the green claims of 1,018 consumer products, and found that 1,017 were illegitimate, including beauty products that promised a “totally organic experience” but included “zero evidence that the product contained any organic ingredients,” says Case. (TerraChoice won’t identify the retailers for fear of libel.) “We saw absolutely ridiculous claims,” Case says. “And vague, too. What the heck does ‘earth-friendly’ mean?”

Only 1 product’s claims were legitimate.  The rest, phony or misleading. 

I can’t emphasize enough that you have to read labels, particularly when buying beauty/personal care products.  If you are looking for products that are “natural” or “organic,” you need to carefully inspect labels to see if you are buying what you think you are buying.  It is a wild west of unregulated claims.  Case in point, while the USDA Certified Organic seal has meaning, companies can you the word “organic” in the company name or product name, without having any organic ingredients at all.

And the US Food & Drug Adminstration (FDA), the agency that regulates cosmetics, doesn’t do much to regulate them.  The FDA has only banned 9 ingredients in cosmetics – the EU has banned over 1,100 (although, granted, some of them are chemicals you would never find in cosmetics).  The FDA does not test cosmetic products before they are marketed.  In fact, the FDA admits that cosmetics manufacturers are responsible for substantiating claims of safety.

And those advertising slogans?  They don’t mean much.  The FDA doesn’t have regulatory definitions for hypoallergenic, fragrance free, etc.  People are always amazed at the lack of regulatory definitions for those commonly used advertising on beauty products.  For example, here is the FDA’s position on the label “hypoallergenic” on cosmetics:

There are no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term “hypoallergenic.” The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean. Manufacturers of cosmetics labeled as hypoallergenic are not required to submit substantiation of their hypoallergenicity claims to FDA.

The term “hypoallergenic” may have considerable market value in promoting cosmetic products to consumers on a retail basis, but dermatologists say it has very little meaning.

Similarly, “unscented” and “fragrance free” have no legal definition.  Companies often use these labels for products that have no scent to them, but fragrance has been added to mask bad odors.  In fact, for an eye opening less in label reading, I urge you to check out my analysis of every parent’s staple – Johnson & Johnson’s Head to Toe Baby Wash.

So, if you are trying to buy organic, natural or healthy beauty products, keep in mind that label reading is a must.  Just buying the products at Whole Foods or a similar retailer doesn’t necessarily ensure the product is what you think it is.  Often, so called natural products have petroleum derived ingredients – which may not be what you want.  It doesn’t necessarily make them bad products, but it just may not be what you think you are getting when you shell out your money.  As explained in the Newsweek article,

Many beauty products marketed as “organic” or “natural” actually contain fossil fuels. True, petroleum is the product of decayed plants and animals, but that’s not what customers have in mind when they pay a premium for organic. And because petrochemicals are mixed with so many nonorganic chemicals, it’s even a stretch to call them “natural.” In April Dr. Bronner’s, a line of beauty products, filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court against 13 personal-care brands, including Avalon, Jason, Kiss My Face and Estée Lauder, for deceptive and false advertising. Among the claims were that Kiss My Face’s “Obsessively Organic” cleansers contained olefin sulfonate, a petrochemical, and that Avalon “Organics” contain the petrochemical Amdiopropyl Betaine. The defendants say that the use of processed oil derivatives does not undermine their “all natural” labels, and call for a clearer legal definition of what constitutes “eco-friendly.”

Bottom line?  Be an informed consumer.

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