An illusion of green.

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In the midst of a growing environmentally conscious world, a new, eco-friendly consumer has emerged. The growth in eco-friendly consumers has put pressure on companies to develop green products, in particular, green cleaning products. Companies have adapted their products by making them “biodegradable” or “all-natural” which ultimately minimizes environmental impacts. In saying this, the commercial transition to green cleaning products seems suspiciously seamless. At the snap of a finger, harmful cleaning products have supposedly become green, some of which are even made with plant-based materials. Despite these alleged changes, some companies are secretly using advertising loopholes to manipulate consumers instead of actually making changes to their products.

The mirage-like transition to eco-friendly products has been described as a “green-washing” hoax. According to CBC’s Marketplace, companies have duped consumers into believing they are “buying green” when the products are actually unchanged. The lack of policing of product labeling in Canada gives companies the freedom to print just about anything on their products’ packaging, even outright lies. As a result, green consumers are being misled by the false claims of supposed ecological changes.

Moreover, chronic health and environmental hazard warnings are not required criteria of product labeling. Companies have taken advantage of this marketing “grey zone” by creating environmental trigger-words, such as “natural,” that steer consumers into believing products are eco-friendly.  When you hear the word “natural” what comes to mind? In the eyes of marketers, it means a new advertising angle, a new way to attract consumers; however, in environmental terms, it means absolutely nothing. For example, a cleaning product that is said to be 98% natural, could, in reality, be 98% water. Water is indeed a natural ingredient, therefore, is putting “98% natural” on the label really lying? What if the other 2% of ingredients are petroleum-based chemicals? Does this change the validity of the label?

When buying a supposed green cleaning product, one might expect the manufacturer to provide an ingredient list that accurately describes the product’s contents. In fact, the ingredient list you may see on a product is just as lawless as the label. There is no legal requirement to fully disclose a product’s ingredients, hazardous or not. Despite this, the Consumer Ingredient Communication Initiative (CICI) does provide consumers with some insight. On a voluntary basis, some companies will provide an accurate list of ingredients; however, because the initiative is voluntary not all companies are held accountable.

Dawn Dish Soap publically claims that thousands of animals affected by oil spills have been cleaned by their soap. According to the company, Dawn’s products are said to gently and safely clean the damaging oil from wildlife, allowing them to recover. The recent Dawn commercial which highlights their efforts can be seen here. After research performed on the ingredients of Dawn Dish Soap, the chemical triclosan has been identified and is actually harmful to wildlife. Dawn no doubt raises money and promotes campaigns to save animals affected by ecological disasters; however, the false claims about the safety of their products are nonetheless frightening.

Today there is a need for accountability and transparency in the commercial market, especially on matters than can have a dramatic impact on our health and the environment. The effort put towards green-washing implies that consumers are not savvy enough to recognize and use truly green products. We have put too much trust in companies to provide us with green products and the truth about their ingredients. It is clear that our trust has been misinterpreted as ignorance. Although companies do deserve some of the green-washing blame, there are several parties who are responsible for this misrepresentation. Should the government adopt a stronger responsibility in the regulation of labeling? What is our responsibility as consumers? Becoming green should create an opportunity for exploitation, becoming green requires collective effort- from the government, to citizens, and even the commercial market.

Check out CBC Marketplace and their top 10 list of  so-called green products here.


Steve Watts