How To Spot Greenwashing

Greenwashing: is when a company skirts the truth about how environmentally friendly their product is, in an attempt to get you to buy it.

Now more than ever, people are willing to pay for environmentally friendly products and large companies are seeing this trend, the problem is though, how do you know if what they are selling is truly green or eco-friendly?

The Beauty Industry 

Natural, organic, organically derived, active naturals – oh my! what do all these terms mean?

Unfortunately in most cases NOTHING AT ALL!

Well + Happy Rise Of The Conscious Brand Table Layout


There is good news and bad news here. In the United States the word “organic” is highly regulated and legally cannot be used unless a product or agricultural ingredient has been certified by the USDA. If you are buying U.S. brands you must also look for a logo that confirms this. Sound goods right?

Well it’s a bit more complicated; the USDA has no authority over the production and labelling of cosmetics, that falls to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). According to the FDA, you cannot put “false” or “misleading” information on cosmetics labels. Problem is, manufactures only have to voluntarily register their ingredients and labels. And here is where the problem with regulation lies. It’s evident we need laws that define labelling, organic claims and personal care certification more clearly.

In Canada the situation is just as bad. The new Canadian Organic Standard does not cover cosmetics. That falls under Health Canada’s jurisdiction and currently there are NO rules or guidelines in place for using the words natural or organic. Health Canada really needs to step up their game here, a company can have ONE organic ingredient in it and call itself organic, this is simply unacceptable.

If you are shopping for truly “organic” skincare or cosmetics, you need to look for the EcoCert logo. ECOCERT is an organic certification organization, founded in France in 1991. It is based in Europe but conducts inspections in over 80 countries, making it one of the largest organic certification organizations in the world.

Let’s take a closer look at key words.


Legally this word means absolutely NOTHING! It’s 100 per cent unregulated and used purely as a marketing tool, or greenwashing. Companies use this term very loosely, if a product contains a trace amount of naturals but is mainly made up of synthetic chemicals, they can claim its “natural”. This is where reading and understanding the ingredients is key; I will address this in more detail later on. A good rule of thumb though is if the “natural” ingredient/s are buried at the bottom of the list, you can be sure the product is far from natural.


This one is interesting; in most cases, it’s simply a marketing tool. Most of the time it’s used when referring to specific ingredients that are toxic to humans when exposed, like phthalates. These nasty neuro and hormone disruptors have been linked to cancer and are normally found in shampoo, conditioner and other household items. Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break. They are often called plasticizers (YIKES) they are used in cosmetics to make the product more slide.


This term holds no meaning at all. NADA. It’s used to give the impression that the product causes fewer reactions than its competitor.

Next step, is understanding the ingredients. Almost all skincare products are made up of a combination of the following:

Petroleum derived or synthetic ingredients made from crude oil, yep you read that right! And are found in many of your favourite products. This is what you will see on the label:

• Mineral Oil

• Paragen PPG: found in self-tanning products

• Carbomer: found in most body lotions

• Isopropyl: found in everything from shampoo to nail polish

Plant derived botanical ingredients extracted from flowers, seeds and trees, like jojoba oil, coconut oil, essential oils etc. You can identify these on labels by looking for the following key words:

• Phyto: phytosomes

• Coc: cocomide, cocoa butter

• Sorb: sorbic acid, sorbitol

• Palm: palm oil

• Laur: laurel, laureth

Minerals that come from deep within the earth and include zinc oxide, clays, mica, salts and iron oxide. Minerals are listed on labels like this:

• Magnesium

• Aluminum

• Sodium

Animal derived ingredients like beeswax, keratin, collagen and biotin. There is some cross over here, so make sure to look at the label to see if the ingredients are plant or animal derived. Good companies who are transparent will put this information directly on the label. A good example of this is Caprylic Acid – a liquid fatty acid from cow’s or goat’s milk. Also from palm, coconut, and other plant oils.

You can identity animal ingredients by looking for the following on labels:

• Cetyl: cetyl-alcohol, cetyl stearate

• Glu: glucuronic acid, glutamine

• Gly ie: glycerin, glycogen

• PEG: ie: abbreviated form for polyethylene glycol

• PPG: abbreviated form for polypropylene glycol and polyoxypropylene glycol

Bottom line, is get to know the companies (and ingredients) you are buying from, look for transparency and when in doubt, contact the company directly before make a purchase.

A good rule of thumb, if you look at a label and it claims to be natural or organic but has fragrance in the ingredient list. It’s 100% not natural or organic. Because of loose laws in both Canada and the USA, companies are allowed to use the term fragrance to protect their formulas, problem is there are thousands of toxic chemicals that can fall under this term. If the products is scented with essential oils, it should be listed as such.

You can also download two very cool apps.

Think Dirty: You can use this app to scan bar-codes on personal care products. They have a database of more than 65,000 brands. Once you scan, you will get a list of ingredients and their potential toxicity to the body. Their “dirty meter” is the score they give each product, based on certain carcinogens or allergens. It also offers alternatives to greener, cleaner products. It’s a great app to get started if you are new to non-toxic skincare.

EWG’s Healthy Living provides mobile access to their Food Scores and Skin Deep guides, providing on-the-go information on tens of thousands of foods and more than 72,000 personal care products. Healthy Living provides a simple, searchable on-the-go guide for those interested in making healthy, affordable decisions about food and personal care products that are good for people and the planet. This app also uses a bar-code.

Well + Happy Eco Home Spray Tisserand Essential Oils
Well + Happy Eco Home Spray recipe Tisserand Essential Oils

Cleaning Products 

Like the beauty industry there are little to no regulations on place to protect the consumer. In fact, the government only requires that ingredients that pose a significant and immediate threat or danger be on the label. An example may be “if ingested, call poison control”.  And to make matters even worse, in many cases cleaning products don’t even have an ingredient list. So here is what you can do:

If there is a claim of organic or natural, there must be a third party certification label (like EcoLogo) visible on the packaging.  If the item claims to be biodegradable, it must have an official biodegradability designation.  It must list all of the ingredients. It must disclose what is hiding in “fragrance” and the label should include company contact information.

Other things to keep in mind:

Always look for transparency. If you are not sure, a company should be more than willing to answer your questions. Do your homework; you work hard for your money, make sure you are spending it on companies that are aligned with your value.

Chelsea Parsons

Chelsea Parsons is the passionate founder of Well + Happy. A trained Kinesiologist, Yoga Teacher, NLP Practitioner and Performance Coach; Chelsea helps to inspire and educate people to live more abundant lives through high vibes, happy food and a more conscious way of living.

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