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Greener You

How to Tell If a Product is Actually Eco-Friendly and Sustainable

Don’t let greenwashing fool you. Look for these key certifications, labels and identifiers to make sure you’re choosing items that are truly green.

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Sustainable, environmentally-conscious products are easier to find than ever before. As shoppers demand greener alternatives and seek out brands that offer reusable, plant-based or simply eco-friendly options, increasingly more companies are unveiling new “green” products. But there’s a bit of a catch – not every product that claims to be eco-friendly actually lives up to its claims. 

Labeling products as sustainable or “green” without any concrete evidence of environmental responsibility (or unsupportable claims) is a phenomenon called greenwashing. Essentially, it’s the practice of calling products eco-friendly without putting in the legitimate work to make them sustainable, responsibly-produced or sourced, or made with any real serving to the environment. And because greenwashing has become so common, it’s getting harder to tell which items are genuinely eco-friendly and which aren’t. 

So, how can you avoid falling for greenwashing? How can you know which products are really environmentally responsible picks? Often, it’s not as easy as simply looking at the labeling or packaging. Here are the key hallmarks you should look for when shopping for sustainable products.

Look for third-party certification

Hands down, third-party certifications are the best way to understand just how environmentally-friendly any given product is. There are a number of organizations that exist to vet sustainable, eco-friendly products in every category, from assessing products’ environmental impact to composition and materials content to manufacturing, sourcing and production processes. And if you can find products that have earned a third-party certification (or multiple!), then you can trust that what you’re buying has met key criteria. 

Which certifications are worth paying attention to? Well, it really depends on the kind of product you’re purchasing. Here’s an overview of some of the key eco-minded third-party certifications that you’ll want to keep an eye out for:

  • Green Seal: Green Seal is a nonprofit organization that conducts scientific analysis on a product’s environmental impact. Products carrying Green Seal certification meet the highest standard for health and eco leadership.
  • Certified B Corporation (B Corp): To earn a B Corp certification, companies must qualify through this organization’s B Impact Assessment, which examines companies’ impact on the environment, workers, communities and customers. 
  • Energy Star: Used for appliances, electronics and home goods that utilize electricity, this government-led certification program helps consumers identify products that are energy-efficient. To earn Energy Star certification, products must meet specific energy consumption standards. 
  • Environmental Working Group (EWG) Verified: The EWG Verified label is one given to skin care, personal care, hair care and cleaning products that meet key chemical safety standards. Verified products are free from the EWG’s “chemicals of concern” and meet strict standards for health. 
  • Fair Trade Certified: This certification for clothing, food and beverages is awarded by Fair Trade USA, a nonprofit organization. Products that carry a Fair Trade certification meet standards that include income sustainability, environmental stewardship and community and individual well-being.
  • Non-GMO Project Verified: Given to food, beverages and personal care products, the Non-GMO Project awards a “verified” label to items that use only GMO-free ingredients. It’s a very thorough verification process, one that includes ingredient testing and cross-contamination checks.
  • USDA Organic: In order to be truly organic, a food, beverage, personal care product or textile has to be certified through the official USDA National Organic Program. This certification process has strict requirements as to which kinds of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are allowed to be used on USDA organic crops, as well as specific amounts and circumstances they must meet.

Of course, there are many more labels, verifications, certifications and standards that products and companies can tout on their products and websites. So, if you aren’t sure if a product meets the sustainability or environmental standards you’re hoping for, you can verify their claims with a little online research. If a product features any certifications on its label, you should be able to confirm its vetting with a third party by visiting the certifying organization’s website. 

Consider the impact and life cycle of the product

Once you’ve looked for any appropriate third-party certifications or labels, you’ll also want to think about how much of an environmental impact a product has – or will have. 

For example, when you think about a plastic single-use water bottle, you’ve got a product that has a massive impact on the environment. Not only does the manufacturing of that water bottle require oil and produce carbon dioxide, but it also likely won’t wind up in a recycling bin or get repurposed. It very likely could become a detriment to the environment, landing in the ocean or a landfill where it doesn’t break down.

You should think about sustainable products in a similar manner. While it’s great that a “green” product is made with renewable resources, like plant-based ingredients, it’s even better to choose an item that’s manufactured, packaged and able to be disposed in an environmentally-friendly way.

As you shop for sustainable products, keep these details in mind:

  • Ingredients and materials: The best options are those made from recycled, compostable and clean (no toxic or potentially harmful chemicals) ingredients.
  • Longevity: Products that can be reused or are made to last a long time have a lower environmental impact (and bonus points if it can be composted or recycled once it’s no longer useful).
  • Packaging: Recyclable or compostable packaging is a must, but it’s also a good idea to look for items with minimal packaging overall.
  • Efficiency: If you’re shopping for electronics, energy usage is an important metric. However, you can also think of efficiency in terms of the manufacturing process, too.

While you can assess some of these details just by digging into a product’s labeling and packaging, you may need to do a little more research to fully understand how sustainable it is (or isn’t). Ultimately, you’ll want to decide what key features or metrics matter the most to you and look for products that meet that criteria. 

For example, if ethical and environmentally-responsible manufacturing is your number one, you’ll need to do some research to get the whole picture on a company’s practices. If recyclable or compostable materials are key, then you can easily check a product’s ingredients list and labeling for that info. You may find that a combination of researching online before buying and taking a close look at product info is the best strategy to find products that have the right balance of eco-friendly benefits and a positive impact at large.

Be on the lookout for common greenwashing words and packaging tricks

Lastly, you’ll want to keep an eye out for packaging cues that can indicate potential greenwashing. When you scan the aisles of the grocery store or search online, you’ll notice that many products feature visual cues, coloring and even key words and phrases that can suggest “green” alignment. But don’t let products suggest they’re sustainable; instead, dig a little deeper so you aren’t falling for greenwashing.

How can you tell what’s greenwashing and what’s truly eco-friendly? Here’s what to look out for:

  • Misleading words. Eco-friendly, green, all-natural, earth-friendly, plant derived, organic (but not organic certified), non-toxic – these words are popular, but they’re meaningless. Unless there’s a certification, label or ingredients list to back them up, they’re just buzzwords.
  • Green-colored or leafy images on packaging. Plenty of products try to imply they’re better for the environment with green packaging, images of leaves and plants or even “clean”, “better for you” indicators. However, literal green packaging doesn’t mean anything if the products don’t meet any third-party standards.
  • Counterintuitive claims. Does the product’s packaging or marketing match its uses and purposes? For example, single-use plastic bags are terrible for the environment, but that doesn’t stop some brands from calling them “better for the environment.” Similarly, single-use plastic water bottles often tout “made with less plastic,” though they’re still using plastic that isn’t biodegradable.

Ultimately, if a product can’t back up its visual cues or the claims it uses to capture your attention, it’s not really “green” or eco-friendly. With just a few more seconds of vetting and verifying, you can easily check out these products to determine if they can help you live a more sustainable, environmentally-minded life.