Greenwashing: When "Green" Isn't

100% eco friendly green sign

Greenwashing: When “Green” Isn’t

"Green" --  it's everywhere! We see it on laundry detergents and window cleaners, on pet food, toilet bowl cleaners and even in ads for cars.  Does this mean the product is safe for the environment? And for our families?

Well, maybe not.

In recent years, many of us have become increasingly aware of the effects of toxic chemicals on our environment and our families. It didn't take long for manufacturers to see the sales advantages of an “environmentally friendly" image.  In the absence of regulations defining "green," products may easily convey that message whether they are truly green or not.

To be fair, many manufacturers have made great strides toward ensuring that their processes and products are environmentally safe. However, there are others who engage in what we might call “creative advertising,” I suppose; but a more accurate word would be “greenwashing” -- the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.

While greenwashing is widespread, this article will focus primarily on pet products and cleaning supplies – pet products because we are pet owners, of course; and cleaning supplies because they are among the most toxic and therefore harmful products we have in our homes.

The Sins of Greenwashing and How to Spot Them

Various sources have chosen to create their own lists of red flags, or “sins of greenwashing,” that will alert the consumer that they are being “greenwashed.” Here are five we feel are most prevalent and the easiest to recognize.

 1.  Misleading Packaging, or "Keeping Up (False) Appearances"

This is probably the simplest greenwashing tactic to spot, simply because no effort is made to hide it! Manufacturers know what colors and images shout “green” -- soft greens and browns, an idyllic image of a field or farm (think Old MacDonald and “amber waves of grain”), a green leaf or a stalk of wheat. Is this any guarantee that the product is green, or is it just marketing hype? You be the judge.

Can companies use these types of images and be truly green? Of course! We use a green leaf on PurSpray’s logo to draw attention to the fact that our product contains no toxic chemicals and thus will not harm the environment or your family (and that includes your pet, of course!). If you see a green leaf or any other “eco-friendly” or “green” logo, always look for the proof that the product lives up to its claim.PurSpray backs up our claim by publishing information about our key ingredient on our website. We invite you to take a look!

2.  Vague claims, or "Say what??"

Words can mislead, too, of course. There is an endless list of words that convey the idea that a company and its product aren't harming you or the environment, including "all-natural" and "environmentally-friendly" to "earth-conscious," "naturally derived" and "eco-anything," to name just a few. The list is endless.  These terms, however, are unregulated and, on their own, virtually meaningless.  Look instead for “organic” and “recycled” which have been defined by the federal government and are verified by a seal.

3.  Hidden tradeoffs, or “Oops, I forgot to mention . . .”

Products will often make a positive claim that is true but then fail to mention other, often larger, negative factors. For example, a pet product might tout the fact that it “contains aloe to soothe flea-bitten skin" but fail to mention that it also contains tetrachlorvinphos, an organophosphate pesticide considered a human carcinogen and toxic to the nervous system. Lists of scary side effects and instructions that include such phrases as “read entire label before each use” should set off alarm bells.

 4.  Non-transparency, or "It’s all smoke and mirrors"

Companies can make all sorts of claims, but can they provide proof of those claims?  Is that proof accessible, either on the label or on their website? If not, you would do well to walk away.  See “Look for third-party certification” below.

5.  Irrelevance, or "So what?"

This “sin of greenwashing” is easy to foist on the environmentally-uneducated consumer (that might include a lot of us!).  Companies may make a statement that is factually correct but simply not relevant. For example, a product may claim to be free of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s), an ozone-depleter once found in aerosols. We might be inclined to applaud the company for removing these chemicals . . .until we learn that CFC’s were banned way back in 1978.  Be sure marketing claims are legitimate.

What to do

In 2012, The Federal Trade Commission (FDC) warned companies against making broad, unverifiable claims about environmental friendliness. However, little has been done to ensure that consumers are not being led astray. It is up to us, then, to choose our products wisely, be they for home, people, or pets. Here are six ways you can become truly green.

1.  Choose retailers you can trust.

If you have a local health food store, go in and ask some questions about how they choose their products. Whole Foods, for example, takes care to ensure that the companies they buy from can verify their green and natural claims. Their Eco-Scale program rates the greenness of each product according to such standards as level of transparency, animal testing, and presence of petroleum-derived ingredients.

2.  Look for third-party certification.

If the retailer itself doesn’t have its own proven certification system, then look for third-party certification. Look for a trustworthy seal, e.g. Green Seal for cleaning products; and the USDA organic seal which ensures that pet food has followed the same standards as those for organic human food. You should also know what to look for on a pet food label! In general, ingredients should be few in number, recognizable and pronounceable.

3.  De-tox your home

Today there are products to solve every housekeeper’s dilemma, from dirt and grime to dust, dull furniture, tarnished silver, and stale odors. Sadly, you can be sure that most conventional products that address these problems contain toxic chemicals. Indeed, the EPA says that pollution inside our homes can be two to five times higher than it is outside. (These numbers go up in the colder months when we seal up our homes.) This is primarily due to the chemical cleaners and disinfectants we have in our kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms and even our nurseries. If you’re serious about having a green home, start de-toxing! Begin by ditching the products you find under your kitchen sink and in your bathroom. You may be surprised just how many chemicals you’ve been exposing your family to.

4.  Make your own . . .or use PurSpray for cleaning!

You can make your own household cleaners from simple ingredients. Women's Voices for the Earth has a host of helpful “recipes;" and the Environmental Working Group has a Guide to Healthy Cleaning you can download for a small donation. 

Keep in mind, too, that PurSpray Pet Care is a dual-purpose pet spray.  Our customers rave about its effectiveness with ear infections and a host of skin conditions, of course; but it's also a non-toxic cleaner for cleaning up things like crates and cages, food bowls and toys, slobberings and those inevitable "accidents." It contains no toxic chemicals and is safe for your pet to lick.

5.  Avoid toxic pet products, especially flea collars

Toxic chemicals can be hidden in everything from our pets’ toys to their food bowls (e.g., lead in stoneware, BPA in plastic) and bedding (e.g., flame retardant foam). The most toxic chemicals of all, however, are found in flea collars. According to Rodale News, both tetrachlorvinphos (TCVP) and propoxur are used in national brands, including Hartz and Zodiac. Both have also been called “two of the most dangerous pesticides still on the market” by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC); yet the EPA has denied NRDC’s petitions to remove the chemicals from flea collars. We would do well to avoid putting any pesticides around our pets' necks!  Testing has revealed that high levels of residue from both chemicals can remain on the fur of dogs and cats for at least three days; propoxur residue is detectable even after 14. The concern, of course, is for children whose developing bodies are most vulnerable to chemical exposure and whose behavior includes petting and snuggling with pets as well as putting their hands in their mouths.

Happily, there are alternatives to toxic chemical flea collars. Since dogs are the primary target for fleas, the following recommendations are particularly geared to canines.

Believe it or not, you may not need a flea collar at all! Before you go the flea-collar route, learn about other , safer options. Whole Dog Journal has detailed information that is worth checking out; in the meantime, here are some basic guidelines on preventing fleas without toxic flea collars.

  • Improve the health of your dog! Many vets will say that healthy dogs simply don't get fleas.  Check out our free eBook,Holistic Pet Care Resource Guidefor lists of websites, books and magazines that will help you improve your pet's health. You'll even find several healthy snack recipes!
  • Vacuum regularly to remove flea eggs. If you're concerned about fleas in your carpet, Whole Dog Journal will give you instructions for using diatomaceous earth.
  • Wash your pet’s bedding at least weekly and in hot water.
  • Use a flea comb on your dog whenever he’s been outside. This will help you find ticks as well.
  • Bathe your pet every other week, more often during seasons of flea infestation.

If you feel you need to use a flea collar, look for ones without TCVP and propoxur.  Instead, look for ones with insect growth regulators, or IGR’s. These include such names as lufenuron, spinosad, methoprene or pyriproxyfen.

6.  Find reliable sources of information.

Websites can be great sources of information, of course, and there are three in particular that we recommend for people serious about having a truly green and natural home:

Go to these sites when you have questions, and get on their email lists! The articles listed below under “Sources” are worth reading, too, as is our own article, “Is ‘100% Natural’ Always Natural? Don’t Bet On It”.

Let us know what you thought about this article by commenting below. We love to hear from you!

SOURCES for this article:

Case, Scot. "Beware of Greenwashing: Not All Environmental Claims are Meaningful. Jul 1, 2007.

Lamb, Robert. “How Greenwashing Works.” No date.

Makower, Joel. “Lies, Damn Lies, and the Seventh Sin of Greenwashing.” Apr. 14, 2009. greenbiz.com Palmer, “How to know if your ‘green’ cleaner is really eco-friendly – a primer.” March 31, 2014.

Rayapura, Aarthi.  “Millenials Most Sustainability-Conscious Generation Yet, But Don’t Call Them ‘Environmentalists.’” Mar. 11, 2014

Severson, Kim. “Be It Ever So Homespun, There’s Nothing Like Spin.” Jan. 3, 2007.

Yu, WInnie. “Your Toxic Living Room is Making You Sick.” Nov. 2011.

Zerbe, Leah. “The Flea Collar You Should Never Buy for Your Pet.” 2014.

“How Can You Tell if It’s Really ‘Green’?” 2013. Grist Magazine, Inc. on

“Greener School Cleaning Supplies: Greenwashing.” 2009.