How to tell if you’re being greenwashed in beauty

how you tell tell if you're being greenwashed in beauty

Greenwashing is nothing new: companies have been trying to get us to believe they’re planet-friendly, animal-friendly, and just plain old friendly for years now. But with the explosion of the ‘clean’ beauty movement, brands have pretty much lucked out. It’s never been easier to greenwash, and it’s never been such a lucrative business. 

So what is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a type of marketing used to make the consumer believe that a brand’s products or policies are environmentally friendly, when in fact that couldn’t be further from the truth.

I’m all for eco-friendly products, and would much prefer to buy from companies who don’t test on animals, do minimal harm to the environment, and use ingredients which are kind to skin. The thing is, the beauty world is a minefield of confusing terminology, unregulated claims, and twisted research. People’s distrust for corporations and even modern medicine is leading consumers to look for buzzwords, rather than look into what’s behind the label, what ingredients mean, and if parabens actually are the devil or not.

Being greenwashed is frustrating – nobody likes feeling duped. When companies take advantage of people’s good intentions, and depend on the average consumer’s lack of information, it’s more than just unfair. So how can you tell if you’re being greenwashed? Here’s how to spot some of the more common signs, and what they really mean.

How to tell if you’re being greenwashed

how to tell if you're being greenwashed

1.Your product proudly announces how ‘free’ it is

I’m not talking about free products, but rather things which are preceded-with-a-hyphen-free. Paraben-free, silicon-free, mineral oil-free, sulphate-free, chemical-free (seriously, fuck this one), oil-free…you-name-it-free, it’ll be slapped on the label in prime position to draw you in. 

Maybe these products are indeed insert-bad-nasty-ingredient-here-free, but they might not have even needed these ingredients in them anyway. Formulas don’t require silicon or mineral oil to work. Regardless of how you feel about the individual ingredients like parabens in cosmetics, the lack of them doesn’t mean the formula is any better without them. Just because something is free of mineral oil doesn’t make any of the other ingredients a good choice – these labels are only highlighting what’s NOT there. 

2. The words ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ are on the label

Unfortunately, these two words are not regulated in most countries. In Europe and the USA you can pretty much use these words and twist it to your own definition of ‘natural’ or ‘organic’. It could be that only a certain percentage of the ingredients are ‘natural’ (as opposed to synthetic), or in the case of sunscreen, ‘organic’ doesn’t necessarily mean organically sourced – it could mean ‘organic filters’, which absorb UV radiation – unlike inorganic filters such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide which act as a physical block. If your head didn’t hurt before, I’m sure it does now. 

Case in point: the Soil Association in the UK conducted a report called ‘Campaign for Clarity’, in which it investigated ingredients in products which placed ‘organic’ on their labels. Many of the products were not officially certified as organic, and if they tried to gain official organic status, it would likely be denied as a result of their ingredients list. 

Take Coola’s Piña Colada Sunscreen Spray, which proudly states ‘Made with CERTIFIED ORGANIC ingredients’ on the label. Okay, it’s not saying that it’s fully organic, but that’s enough for the consumer to misunderstand. Especially when you consider it contains ingredients which wouldn’t be ‘permitted in a certified organic product’, according to the Soil Association and the international COSMOS standards. Yikes. 

Here’s a useful glossary of organic logos and seals from Organic and Your Health.

3. The packaging is actually green

 If they can’t deceive you with words, they can certainly do it with a calming, fresh, ‘natural’ colour scheme. I like to assume the marketing process:

“Hey Dave, how can we make people believe our body wash which only contains 0.1% of a singular green tea leaf is packed with the stuff?”

“Just put green tea fields on the label, Colin, and get the hell out of my office. It’s only 9:30 AM and I haven’t exploited anyone in a developing country yet.”

Not that organic (like, real organic) products can’t be green in colour – it’s just that this is a really simple marketing trick. Turn the bottle over and read the back of it, or check the box for the ingredients if you want to see if your green tea body wash actually contains any trace of it. 

green tea fields in boseong south korea

4. The packaging has a cute bunny on it 

The cruelty-free bunny has become an easy way for consumers to check if their products have not been tested on animals, but just because you have a nice image of a bunny on your cosmetic packaging doesn’t mean it’s actually certified cruelty free. 

It takes a graphic designer five minutes (okay, maybe more) to whip up a cartoon drawing of a bunny, so you need to be looking for official logos from recognised organisations, like the international Leaping Bunny. In the USA, you can look for the PETA bunny, and in Australia, the CCF rabbit will help you out. 

Sourced from

5. The eco-friendly claims are vague 

“We believe in sustainability.” (sure, but are you an environmentally sustainable company?)

“We firmly believe it’s not necessary to test on animals.” (you believe it, but are you actively working against it or are you certified cruelty free?)

“100% recyclable packaging” (yes, but what about your production processes – what is their effect on the environment?)

Diversion is also a common tactic. While it’s not the beauty industry, Shell once sponsored a wildlife photography exhibition, and we all know what effects petrol has on the environment. It’s like McDonald’s sponsoring the FIFA World Cup – they can do it, of course, but it leaves a bad taste. It diverts the consumer and distracts from the issues and all the other bad things that the company is potentially or allegedly involved in. 

Of course, just because you see some of the tactics in this list employed on a product doesn’t mean that the product isn’t trustworthy. Do your research, check the ingredients list, and learn which logos you can trust in the world of organic, cruelty-free skincare.

It’s a difficult, and sometimes tedious process to fact check what you’re buying, but in the modern world of the consumer, it’s also a necessity. People don’t trust the big brand names as much as they once did, but it also means they’re willing to place their trust in other companies who tell them exactly what they want to hear. 

We’re all victims of greenwashing, but we can make our voices heard

Vote with your hard-earned cash, take your business elsewhere, and let them know on social media. Look into who owns your favourite beauty brands, and check out their policies – most companies display theirs online nowadays, even if they’re not transparent. 

Learn how to read between the lines. Lobby and sign petitions, attend protests when you can, and spread the word. Recommend products which are truly eco-friendly, and let your friends sample how great they are to pass on the message. And above all else – don’t fall prey to the marketing.

Sources and references:

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