Your official "greenwashing" glossary

Long gone are the days where eco-conscious beauty products were few and far between. Consumers now want products that are intrinsically linked with their principles, which has led to a surge in clean, green and ethical products. But, as the billion dollar industry continues to expand, so too does the complexity and ambiguity around labels. It can be difficult to discern what you think you’re buying from what you are actually getting, so we asked Cosmetic Chemist Ross Macdougald to weigh in.

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We’ve all seen it before - brands making claims and promises that invariably fail to deliver. These subtle (and not so subtle) marketing tactics have been around for years and are usually what determines the success of the product. However, as consumers are becoming savvy about their purchases and reading between the lines, marketers are becoming more and more clever.

What is "greenwashing"?

This is a term used to describe when a brand makes claims to be green and natural, yet when you delve a little deeper, this is not the full case. It refers to when a brand promotes their products using unsubstantiated or misleading claims that lead the customer into believing that their products are better than they really are. They’ll use terms like natural, green or organic (when in actual fact, their product might only be partially, or in worst cases, not at all any of those things). In many examples, brands will put more effort into the perception they’re portraying to customers rather than focussing on improving their own company practices. Brands will often strategically choose words on product labels based purely on marketability. Because the governing of this practice isn’t as tight as it should be, brands can essentially deceive the consumer. Terms like ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘ethical’ ‘naturally derived’ and ‘green’ are all claims that are seemingly everywhere on skincare labels but what do they really mean? Are you really buying what you think you are? Below is list of some common skincare terms that sit in that grey area of Green Washing confusion and can be rife with unsubstantiated claims.

The glossary

‘Natural’ - A term seen on a lot of beauty and skincare products and for those that are mindful about what they’re putting on their skin, the word ‘natural' can be the thing that gets the purchase across the line. However, unfortunately the term natural is often misused, and in some cases can mean that only a small percentage of a product’s ingredients are plant based, or what was originally ‘natural’, has now in fact gone through a production process which now results in a less-than-natural form.

‘Organic’ – The term Organic should typically refer to how the product’s ingredients were farmed. This means that the original sources of each product should have been farmed without pesticides, antibiotics, fertilisers or growth hormones. Many brands claim their products are organic however the regulations around this term aren’t as tight as they should be. Unfortunately for brands to get officially ‘certified organic’, it can be a long and costly process so the term is often used loosely.

‘Eco-Friendly’- In its true sense, this term should mean that its products and its entire packaging are eco-friendly, or good for the environment. This term should also refer to the company’s practices, including how each ingredient is made, and the practices of suppliers to get the ingredients. It should also mean that the product and its ingredients continue to be eco-friendly, even when they are washed down the drain or wash off in the ocean (like sunscreen).

‘Ethical’ – Ethical is a term that again can be misconstrued because whilst the brand itself might be practicing in ethical practices, we don’t ever really know what is happening further down the supply chain. Most consumers aren’t privy to the details of the supply chain – where the ingredients came from, how they were sourced, what processes they went through to get it into a marketable state, and even what the relationships are like between the farmer and manufacturer. What this means is that down the line there can be unethical dealings or inconsistencies between what messaging the brand is selling you, compared the practices undertaken down the line. This can be especially true for average products which can be formulated with 20-30 ingredients. Each of those ingredients initially came from somewhere, and the consumer rarely gets insight into where it came from and the processes it took to get it to the shelves. To understand what consumers are really putting on their skin, you’d need to trace back the manufacturer and supplier of every single ingredient. 

‘Naturally derived’ – This term in essence refers to ingredients that are derived from nature, but the process means that it is then delivered in an unnatural form (so it sounds natural but may be laden in chemicals). The phrase basically implies that components once came from a natural source, but they have been altered in some way, usually delivering a less than natural form of the original ingredient. 

‘Green’ – The term ‘Green’ is one of those words that can be confusing because it can essentially mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Ideally it should mean that all of the brand’s practices are eco-friendly, ethical and sustainable, but without clear guidelines it could just mean that the outside box of the product is recyclable and not much else. 

Free From’ - Many natural brands make a lot of noise in regard to the chemicals that aren’t contained in their products, such as parabens, petrochemicals, phthalates, sulphates etc. This is a great way of shifting the focus to what’s not in their products, rather than discussing what actually is. A lot of the time these same brands contain substitute ingredients which are either just as bad or even worse. An example of this is when brands will replace a fragrance with essential oils which have the potential to be far more sensitising to the skin than the fragrance (this is just so they can claim the 'natural' high ground). It’s like adding chlorine or arsenic to your product and saying they are good for us because they are natural.