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How to Be A Skeptical Shopper: A Primer on Identifying Greenwashing

How to Be A Skeptical Shopper: A Primer on Identifying Greenwashing
Mary Imgrund
Written by Mary Imgrund

There seems to be no end to the number of brands willing to exploit the good nature of conscientious shoppers for profit. I feel personally manipulated when companies use the guise of fair trade and small charitable donations to hide massive profits and less-than-sustainable practices. Greenwashing, or the façade of sustainable and ethical practices, not only hurts shoppers, but takes sales away from brands that are challenging the status quo of their industries’ supply chain.

How to Identify Greenwashing

Here are some tips to be a skeptical shopper.

Be mindful where you get your ‘facts’ from.

First, I’d recommend you keep this in mind: never take information or advice from an entity who benefits from the outcome of your decision as the entire truth. That’s not to say that some brands aren’t legitimately transparent, but try to verify from outside sources where you can. For instance, Italy is currently facing a problem of Chinese sweatshops illegally popping up in their cities to claim the coveted “made in Italy” tag.  While technically true, the garments are made by exploited workers who live in awful conditions – what we see in the developing world just in a different country. The same can be said for prison labor in the U.S. which forces inmates, including nonviolent offenders, to work for pennies per hour. I used to assume garments made in developed countries were free from slave-like conditions, but I was horribly wrong.

If something seems too cheap to be made by artisans or ethically paid workers, there’s probably something amiss. I love saving money as much as the next girl (grad school isn’t cheap, y’all) but I don’t want to put my ethics on hold so save a few bucks. When possible, I try to find self-employed artisans to buy my clothing or skincare products from; you’re not only supporting ethical work, but will be able to ask them questions about where they source their materials. Compared to the HR department of a large corporation, a real person will be much more forthcoming.

How to Be A Skeptical Shopper- Identifying Greenwashing

Beware of clever PR and marketing ploys.

Work with definitions instead of connotations. Does a green bottle make you slightly more likely to pick up a brand of body wash? Does an “all natural” product catch your eye first? It happens to all of us, but these clever marketing ploys don’t convey the entire truth. Companies do this because they know there’s a growing segment of the population (us) that are willing to pay more for sustainable and ethical goods, but also know that snap decisions are often what we rely on in stressful shopping situations. All natural is a term made up by marketers, I’m sorry to say. It has no government backing and could apply to things that you wouldn’t otherwise buy. Arsenic, for example, is “all natural” yet fatal, while fluoride in toothpaste has been shown to be completely safe, yet raises the eyebrows of some. Or consider the devastating affect palm oil has on the rainforests due to deforestation and loss of habitat; all natural isn’t always altruistic. Try to look beyond branding and buzzwords and consider the ingredient list instead.

Shop slow, shop online.

Shopping online has helped me a lot. As someone with anxiety, I can be easily pressured into buying things; I’ve walked out of stores immediately disappointed because I was pressured into getting something I wasn’t sure about. The magic of the internet allows you to quietly consider different options and do research at the same time. You can also stand on the research others have done before you, like my fellow writers at EWP. Find trusted sources for honest reviews, and learn to be familiar with your personal touchpoints and develop your own list of safe, vetted brands that you like.

Do research if you want to avoid greenwashing

Finally, don’t be ashamed to sometimes fall for greenwashed marketing. We all do it. These advertisements and product descriptions were built to make someone like you buy it, and they toy with all kinds of emotional and unconscious signals. Try your best, and when you find out you were a victim of greenwashing, don’t throw the product away; that’s just making the waste it created for naught.  Instead, consider donating to your favorite workers’ rights or environmental nonprofit organization if you need to quiet your conscious.

Anyone else fall victim to greenwashing? Want to talk about it? Let me know in the comments!

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About the author

Mary Imgrund

Mary Imgrund

Armed with an undergraduate degree in English Literature and Creative Writing, Mary Imgrund’s writing has been published in both local magazines and national journals. After graduating, she co-founded The HBG Flea, a monthly curated market for handmade and vintage goods in Harrisburg, PA in hopes of empowering artisans to find a consistent audience and  shoppers to buy more sustainably. She is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Political Communication at American University. Currently splitting her time between D.C. and PA, she tries to stay sane with splurging on skincare, tending her plants, and doing yoga.

5 Comments

  • Great article, and yes, Greenwashing has become a common marketing element these days. We are a boutique producer of body care products, and the cosmetics industry is awash with Greenwashing…… but in our industry, we call it ANGEL DUSTING. To help consumers I have produced a free downloadable booklet. Check it out here: http://indochinenatural.com/learn/

    Kind regards,
    Dr. Mike Thair
    Cofounder & Chief Formulator
    Indochine Natural Sdn Bhd

  • If something is cheap then there is a hidden cost – someone always pays. The hidden cost is people who made it and/or damage to the environment. Slow down and rethink before you buy something.

    • Yes exactly! And consumers need to know their “savings” might mean even greater costs for someone else or the planet.

  • The greenwashing that irritates me the most is when a company pretends that their operations are okay by being charitable (we are polluters but hey we give free education and housing!)

    • Ugh that is SO annoying! And you have to assume a lot of these companies raise the price by $5 so they can donate $1. I’m always skeptical of charitable businesses because they care about profit first, and charity second.

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