Transition Ottawa

Building Community Resilience Through Action

Have you been ‘Greenwashed’ by your Personal Care Products?

Recently, I’ve noticed that there is a resurgence of tips, ideas, and recipes for making your own personal care products.  This is an idea that I’ve fantasized about now and then, although if truth be known, the closest I’ve come to living the dream is whipping up a batch of uber-healthy (and tasty) hair conditioner from common kitchen ingredients.

Although the project was a success, I didn’t pursue it any further. Why? The main reason is that there were already several stores in my community offering “green” personal care products for men, women and children; bursting at the seams with “natural” and “organic” ingredients … or so the product labels boasted.

Then one night, as I watched CBC’s investigative reporting show Marketplace, my sense of security about environmentally-friendly products marketed as “natural” or “organic” evaporated like a bucket of steam.  Yes siree, I had been greenwashed (gasp!).

In case you are wondering, “greenwashing” is a word often used to describe the deceptive use of green words and images in order to promote a misleading perception that a company's products are environmentally friendly. In my case, after watching Marketplace, it became crystal clear that many companies were taking great liberties in marketing products as “natural” or “organic” for four reasons:

First, the personal care industry worth about $6 billion dollars; Second, in only a few years, the number of so called “green products” increased almost 75%;Third, consumers are often willing to pay a premium (about 25%-65% more) for green products; Fourth, the terms “natural” and “organic” are vague and not regulated properly in Canada.

So what to do? Obviously regulatory agencies need to catch-up on “greenwashing” and companies touting personal care products as “organic” and “natural” that are neither green nor organic need to stop. In the meantime, consumers need to make informed purchasing decisions by accessing credible, practical, timely information.  Fortunately, we live at a time when all the information that we could possibly desire (and more!) about greenwashing, labels, ingredients, and ethical product marketing is available at the click of a mouse.   

Here are 10 suggestions (I’m using them myself):

  1. Watch Marketplace’s “Lousy Labels” episode (22-minutes)
  2. Watch The Story of Cosmetics by Annie Leonard
  3. Check out Green Beaver’s list of “Ingredients to Avoid
  4. Support companies that are genuine and truly  “green” on Twitter and Facebook
  5. Use your cell phone browser to do a little on-the-spot investigating when you spot ingredients you don’t know
  6. Read David Suzuki’s “Survey of Toxic Ingredients in our Cosmetics
  7. Check out Adria Vasil’s Ecoholic website and blog
  8. Add your voice by contacting regulatory groups, such as  The Competition Bureau in Canada
  9. Consider making some of your own personal care products using on-line recipes (hey, I’m not kidding … it might be fun!)
  10. Buy a small magnifying glass to read ingredient labels in stores - yes siree, they are often small

It would be a wonderful world indeed if stakeholders such as government, companies, and consumers came together quickly to solve this sticky bit of green labeling miscommunication (and unsavory, opportunistic business behavior).  Since in reality this situation might meander like a winding country road, what we really need is a big social media nudge to help move things along … something like signing the petition for The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics or David Suzuki’s “Take Action for Smarter Regulation of Chemicals in Cosmetics” petition (Update: This petition is in hiatus until after the Canadian federal election).

As a point of reference, in fall 2010, Prime Minister Harper overturned a CRTC decision on Internet bandwidth caps because of an on-line petition that 40,000 people signed. There are other examples. We can change things too.

Let’s use our collective voices to ensure that what we read (and pay for!) on a green label accurately reflects the integrity of the product 100%. Together we can separate the truly green products from the green counterfeits; in essence helping ourselves by restoring ethical and safe practices by separating the gold nuggets from the Fool’s Gold.

Enjoy the day!


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