To avoid being misled, consumers have to take matters into their own hands

The increase in conscious consumers has also resulted in an increase in greenwashing, a marketing method companies use to take advantage of those who want to make greener choices.

For example, companies may use images of trees, plants, or just brown and green natural colouring on packaging to make consumers believe a product is environmentally friendly and ethical when they haven’t made any sustainable adjustments to their actual products.

There currently aren’t many regulations in place to stop companies from using “green” imagery, or the words “natural” or “environmentally-friendly” alongside their products, so how can we spot a truly sustainable product amidst a sea of greenwashed ones?

Criteria for a sustainable product

Sometimes, it’s genuinely difficult for a brand to recognize what is and isn’t sustainable, especially small brands or local companies. Many makers or shops believe 100 percent cotton is sustainable, and don’t realize that the cotton industry is one of the most environmentally destructive. This is a fantastic opportunity to educate and spread the word without judgement. A well-rounded sustainable product includes all of these criteria:

  1. It was created with the fewest resources possible.
  2. When resources are used, they’re replenished, not tapped completely.
  3. The least amount of energy was used.
  4. The materials are natural, and not just recycled plastics.
  5. The process in which it was made was sustainable: upholds human rights, labour regulations, and is fair trade.
  6. It was grown responsibly: no pesticides, chemicals, or other damaging land practices.

How to spot a sustainable versus a greenwashed product

  1. Check the website: A brand who is truly doing good won’t hide anything. They’ll show you their supply chain, their production facilities, their employees and the working conditions, and even list their genuine eco-labels and sustainable certifications.
  2. Read the story: Certifications are expensive, and for smaller brands this can be unattainable. Look at social media pages and check out their transparency—it’s really challenging to fake the real deal.
  3. Check the materials: Look for natural materials (like bamboo, hemp and linen) versus recycled plastics in clothing, and go further to see how they were grown, harvested, and processed.
  4. Watch out for pretty wording: “100 percent recyclable”, “made with natural ingredients”, “99 percent naturally derived” are all examples of greenwashing. Many products are recyclable or naturally derived, but shouldn’t end up in the waterways or landfills.
  5. Watch out for these ingredients: PVC, triclosan, microbeads, aerosols, phosphates, and chlorine bleach are a few toxic materials that companies use while still marketing themselves as sustainable.
  6. Think full circle: Look at the products’ entire life cycle—from sourcing to shipping to discarding. Question how far are the products being shipped and why? Is the packaging compostable or recyclable?
  7. Is it a “fad” product?: Fad products tend to be over commodified and consumed. It’s great to stay on trends, but sustainable brands stick to the tried and true. Follow what will be “in style” for years to come versus a hot-for-now product.
  8. Question larger companies. In general, if a company is a multi-million-dollar corporation with cheap products, odds are someone or something was exploited along the way.
  9. Think critically even when shopping small business. Look for locally sourced products and shop with intention. In smaller stores, you can ask about the brands they carry and make an informed decision before spending.
  10. Ask questions: Those who genuinely want to do the right thing won’t hide anything. They’ll disclose their practices and make true commitments and take action to do better if they haven’t already.

In the end, it's up to you to learn how to identify a truly sustainable product and to screen products carefully—and now that you’re informed, you’ll be able to spot a fake eco-product from miles away.