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The idea of greenwashing has been around since the 1980s. It describes actions that some companies take to make their products seem more environmentally friendly than they really are. | STOCK

Watch Out for Washing

When shopping, we all like to think that we’re making the choices that are best for us, and for many people, it’s also important that their purchases minimally impact the environment. Unfortunately, the tactics of “greenwashing” and “science-washing” can prevent us from doing either of these things.

The idea of greenwashing has been around since the 1980s. It describes actions that some companies take to make their products seem more environmentally friendly than they really are. They may create elaborate advertising campaigns and/or clever packaging to create the illusion of environmental responsibility. Science-washing is a more recently minted term. Similar to greenwashing, companies use scientific-sounding terminology and mannerisms to try and convince consumers that their products are somehow better than their competitors.

Neither greenwashing nor science-washing are intended to provide you with useful information that will help you make an educated choice. They’re both simply advertising ploys designed to take advantage of well-intentioned consumers. While common in the food, beauty, cleaning, and health industries, almost any kind of product can be green- and/or science-washed.

Since we can’t all become experts in everything, how can we protect ourselves from being exploited by savvy, but shifty, marketing? We can learn their language and tactics. Then, instead of being drawn in by the siren-song of slick advertising, we’ll be alerted to an attempted “washing.”

Ways to Avoid Getting Washed

In the beauty and health departments, be on the lookout for vague phrases that describe what the product does, such as “aids,” “promotes,” “supports,” “stimulates,” “boosts,” and “optimizes.” In other departments, watch for descriptions such as “eco-friendly,” “sustainable,” or “green.” These are ambiguous terms that can’t be measured, so there’s no way to determine if what they’re claiming is true. “Clean” is another word with no consistent meaning. Ask yourself, “Who defines what is clean and what is dirty? Why did they label this product the way they did?”

Also in the supplement and beauty aisles, watch out for phrases like “clinically tested,” “research-backed,” “doctor recommended,” “evidence-based,” and “significant improvement.” These terms need context in order to be meaningful, and they should spur us to ask further questions: Who did the research? What was its quality? What were the results? Is the researcher or the endorser an actual authority in the area being addressed, or are they hiding behind credentials? Assuming the research cited shows an improvement in some area, is it a real-world, impactful improvement or simply a measurable, but small, statistical change?

When choosing products or protocols to improve your health, find out what specific information can be provided by respected professional associations (American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, etc.), public health organizations (NIH, CDC, etc.) and research/education associations (Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, etc.).

Don’t be mesmerized by an impressive sounding ingredient list. That list won’t tell you anything about the ingredients’ quality, stability, quantity, or how they interact with each other, but all of that impacts how well the product works. Remember: dosages used in research (especially in animal studies) are generally much larger than what would be used in everyday life. Just because something caused a change in cells in a petri dish or in laboratory animals, doesn’t mean that it will benefit people when used in lower amounts.

Links to “scientific research” are often liberally sprinkled throughout green- and science-washed marketing material, but just referencing studies doesn’t mean that they are relevant and have robust methodology. Are they actual good-quality studies of the product itself, and not just single components? Do they show that the product is effective? Has the research cited been cherry-picked, ignoring other research that indicates the product is ineffective, or even worse, dangerous?

Dodge greenwashing by paying attention when you encounter the term “natural,” “chemical-free,” or “non-toxic.” Just because an ingredient is lab-created doesn’t mean it’s bad for you, and just because something can be found in nature doesn’t mean that it’s healthy. The origin of an ingredient has nothing to do with its toxicity. Everything in the world is made up of chemicals, so nothing can be “chemical-free,” and anything, including water and oxygen, can be dangerous, depending on how much we ingest.

Do an online search of the product plus the words “review,” “complaint,” and “scam.”

The products that we purchase impact our lives, and the manufacturing of those products impacts our planet. By avoiding green- and science-washed products, we save ourselves money and support businesses that are transparent and truthful. Learn more at:

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