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How to Spot Greenwashing in Cosmetics

How to Spot Greenwashing in Cosmetics

You’re on your way to a more sustainable lifestyle and you realize the impact of the industries that you actively consume. The food industry, transportation, clothing, and, of course, the cosmetic industry. Once you dive into a brand’s commitments and claims, you encounter countless promises of environmentally friendly practices and ingredients. But how do you know if the brand’s claims match their sustainable efforts? When they don’t, that’s greenwashing–and that’s an issue you should be aware of. Let’s start by defining greenwashing, and then we’ll help you learn how to spot greenwashing in the cosmetics industry.

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a mismatch between what a brand communicates regarding its sustainable practices, and their real efforts to mitigate their impact on the environment. The goal? To make the company look like an environmentally responsible player in the cosmetic industry, thus gaining the trust of consumers looking for sustainable cosmetics. In short, when the efforts communicated are greater than the actual actions, there you have greenwashing.

Greenwashing is not always obvious. Sometimes it’s going to be about packaging; other times it may be an insinuation about how superior the ingredient selection is. In most obvious cases, you will find words like green, clean, and non-toxic all over the website and product communication. Today, we’re highlighting five common claims, so you learn how to spot greenwashing claims the next time you’re shopping for your beloved sustainable skincare.

How to spot greenwashing in cosmetics: 5 common greenwashing claims

There are a few patterns that we can establish as the most common greenwashing claims in cosmetics. By creating a small list, we’re hoping that you find it easier to identify greenwashing claims whenever you come across them. Don’t run away from red flags though, just make sure to further read the mission and values of the brand. That’s the only way to really understand the efforts of a company towards a sustainable tomorrow.

Claim #1: “We’re sustainable because we use a super high percentage of natural ingredients”

In this type of claim, the keyword is because. Using this word creates a non-existent connection between natural ingredients and sustainability. In these cases, some brands take advantage of the confusion between the concepts of “natural” and “sustainable” to promote their natural products as inherently sustainable, even though they don’t make any proof of the sustainable sourcing of their ingredients.

Keep in mind that a brand can indeed have natural ingredients and sustainable formulas (as well as sustainable company practices). However, not all natural ingredients are sustainable, nor do all sustainable products contain natural ingredients! You always have to consider the life cycle analysis of a product to get a good picture of how the company performs regarding sustainability.

Claim #2: “Our single-use products are biodegradable”

The word “biodegradable” is a keyword for those who are seeking a sustainable lifestyle. In the cosmetics industry, there are plenty of biodegradable products that belong in a sustainable skincare routine. Think, for instance, of biodegradable rinse-off products, or biodegradable sunscreens. The real issue is when you find the claim that a product is biodegradable on single-use, disposable products–like face wipes, for example. Most often than not, these products are not really biodegradable in the way you think–they are often only biodegradable*.

What do we mean by biodegradable*? The “*” is there to tell you that there’s small print to read: some disposable products are only industrially biodegradable or compostable, which means that they can biodegrade only under certain conditions of industrial composting. For that to happen, the items must be sorted and directed to facilities that offer this type of waste processing. Whether this kind of waste ends up in the appropriate facilities depends on your area’s waste management, and facilities like this may not even be available in your country.

So, what can you do? When shopping for disposable single-use products, look for the expression “home compostable”. When a product is home compostable, it means that it doesn’t require any high-tech conditions to biodegrade. Your home compost station can be the final home for these products. Better than this, only if you find reusable options!

Claim #3: “We are sustainable (but we have no data or info to show you)”

Lack of transparency is, unsurprisingly, a red flag. As a company, you don’t get to be sustainable by accident: you need a plan and objective measures to get there. More often than not, companies that go the extra mile towards sustainability are proud to share what they’re doing as well as the numbers of their positive impact. When the company only affirms that they are eco-friendly without telling you how, you may reach out to them to ask more about their efforts. You can ask about whether or not the brand has relevant sustainability certifications, as well as some numbers that provide you with a good picture of what the brand is doing regarding environmental and social sustainability. As a customer, you deserve transparency.

Claim #4: “Our formulas are chemical-free”

Have you heard us saying that everything is chemical, including water? That’s because we have a pet peeve with the current fearmongering wave in skincare regarding synthetic ingredients. Not only are endless synthetic and “chemical” ingredients as good or even better for your skin than their natural counterparts, but they also have nothing to do with sustainability. To quote, for the second time on this blog, a sentence from a study that intends to develop a way of assessing sustainability in cosmetics, “the origin of the raw material (i.e., synthetic, animal or vegetable source) is as important as the way it was synthesized, extracted and/or purified.” In short, chemical-free formulas are not inherently safer nor more sustainable than formulas containing synthetic compounds.

Other words repeatedly found in greenwashing examples are “non-toxic” and “clean”. Remember that all cosmetics sold in Europe are strictly regulated and safe for your use, as long as you follow the manufacturer’s application directions. Not all companies that use these words are necessarily greenwashing; just make sure to know more about the brand’s claims and commitments before jumping to sustainability conclusions.

Claim #5: “We have recyclable packaging, therefore we’re sustainable”

The first thing to remember here is that packaging is not one of the main contributors to a high environmental footprint of a product; A report of 2018 from the Cosmetics Europe confirmed that “only 5% to 20% of the total lifecycle environmental impact of shampoo is attributable to the raw materials, manufacture, distribution and packaging of shampoo” combined. We can sum it up by saying that packaging is definitely a problem, but eco-designed packaging alone is not going to transform the environmental impact of the cosmetic industry. That’s why a brand cannot claim to be sustainable by only offering recyclable or recycled packaging. Speaking about that…

Let’s clarify the meaning of recyclable vs recycled. There are a few brands that capitalize on the confusion between recyclable and recycled, so we can consider this is also a problem of greenwashing. In short, recycled packaging means that it’s made of recycled materials, while recyclable only means that it is able to be recycled. Most plastic packaging is recyclable, that’s not much of a feature that deserves to be a highlighted in a trully sustainable product.

Into sustainability? Then take a Sustainability 101 class with us and learn all about the environmental impact of the beauty industry.

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