Green or Greenwashing – Evaluating Enviro-Claims

Back in October, my family took off for the weekend to Victoria, a two-hour trip from Vancouver that involves a ferry boat. We chose our hotel because we found a Groupon, it looked nice and it came with a kitchenette, which is huge when you’re traveling with kids. It also claimed to be a “sustainable resort hotel”, and it’s currently targeting LEED certification. While I didn’t choose the hotel for that reason, I’ll admit that knowing it was built with an eye to reducing environmental impact made me feel good. A big sign on the side of the building advertised its green street cred:

Sustainable Hotel Ad

All of the hotel’s claims about water and energy conservation, recycled building materials and so on make my hippie mama heart sing. But the truth is that I am not really qualified to evaluate those claims. Is the hotel actually any greener than any other hotel in Victoria? I can’t say for certain. I can say that other hotels aren’t making the same claims, or pursuing LEED certification. But I don’t really know how much staying in a “sustainable” hotel actually changes my own carbon footprint, and I couldn’t tell you where there’s room for improvement or how well they fulfill the criteria for a truly sustainable resort.

Like most consumers, I am not an expert. I can read articles and pore over packaging labels and do my best to understand what certain words and claims mean, but I don’t have a degree in environmental science or chemistry. I can’t always remember off the top of my head which ingredients I’m supposed to avoid and which ones are okay. I haven’t memorized the dirty dozen or the clean 15. And I know that some companies that seem to be green are really just greenwashing. Even though I’m not an expert, I want to make good choices, so where does that leave me?

When it comes to being a green consumer, there are a few basic guidelines that I follow to help me evaluate claims.

Amber’s Green Consumer Guidelines

  1. The greenest product is the one you don’t buy. Finding a way to do without something, or borrowing it from a friend, is the most sustainable choice you can make.
  2. The next greenest product is the one you don’t buy new. Shopping second-hand is a great way to get the things you need without using any resources to manufacture something all over again.
  3. Sustainability isn’t just about the product – it’s also about the packaging. Lots of small toys come in very big boxes filled with styrofoam, which will last for centuries in the landfill.
  4. If a company is hiding something from you, it’s probably a bad sign. If they’re not listing all of their ingredients, for instance, ask yourself why that is.
  5. On the flip side, if a company is doing something great, they won’t want to hide it from you. If the eggs don’t explicitly state that they’re cage-free, it’s a pretty safe bet that they’re not cage-free.
  6. When it comes to enviro-claims on product labels, third-party certifications carry the most weight, because they’re independent and require companies to prove they fulfill the criteria. Anyone can say that a food is ‘natural’, but not just anyone can say that a food is USDA organic.
  7. If all else fails, and you really can’t tell what is the most sustainable choice, trust your judgment and have faith that your efforts are making a difference. Being green is about doing your best, not achieving perfection.

That last point is key. When you know better, you do better. So take small steps that build on each other, and slowly inform yourself. When making sustainable choices is sustainable for you, you’re more likely to stick with it. That’s what will make the real difference in the long run.

What about you? How do you evaluate green claims and separate real sustainability from greenwashing? I’d love to hear!

This blog post was inspired by the Green Moms Carnival, which is hosted this month by the fabulous Betsy of Eco-novice. Check out her post How to Be a Green Consumer to get lots more great tips.

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  1. I love these guidelines! Simple, easy to remember, and really useful. I think #1 and #2 are always good to keep in mind.
    Betsy (Eco-novice)’s last post … Blessed Not Blind Designs (Cloth Gift Bags Giveaway!)My Profile

  2. Greenwashing…I wonder if that’s going to become the next official word into the Webster dictionary. I haven’t heard it before but it sure hits home. Recently I’ve learned about the hazards of the new smart water meters that Hydro is installing on every house. These things apparently can be very dangerous and yet their benefits are being touted as the next best thing. The science behind some of the risks isn’t being talked about. Why? Is this greenwashing for the almighty dollar? I don’t like to be a devils advocate or a pot-stirer but as a green conscious family we try to do our part – and I love your guidelines – but sometimes consumers just get misled and have to fight for information. Something is misaligned with this. Just my two cents.

  3. Great rules, Amber. I totally agree with you that the greenest thing is what you already have over anything new.
    Beth Terry’s last post … Do you know who’s watching you?My Profile

  4. Agree! Being green means consuming less not buying “green” items. Second-hand items are great too and FUN! I’m a sucker for thrifting! I can’t stay away from the Sally Ann in Kerrisdale. That said, that’s nothing compared to hand-me-downs from friends delivered to your door. Whenever I think green, I think, I’m walking or biking to the market and picking up fruits and veg. Of course, I live in the modern world so I fall down all over the place but when I pick myself up, I look for simple. I’d rather walk to the local greengrocer who may not have organic than drive to Choices. I’d rather buy local, seasonal that look for organic greens from California in January.
    harriet Fancott’s last post … Ten Scary Things About High SchoolMy Profile

  5. LInda Anderson says:

    I really like guideline #1. Over consuming is one of the biggest problems with our society. Great post.

  6. Bravo! I’m 100% on board with your green tips Amber!

    I could rant a bit about the LEED building program… it’s just tooooooo complicated and expensive and the technology that’s used is not reliable in so many cases (making it in effect LESS efficient after things break down or get too annoying to use) BUT that being said I do applaud the EFFORT to go green and the encouragement for alternative building practices – I just hope it gets better instead of the industry getting frustrated or overwhelmed to the point of calling it a joke.
    *pol’s last post … THI$ MEAN$ WARMy Profile

    • The certifications are tricky, indeed. Organic certification can be complicated and expensive, too, and sometimes things are technically organic but not that healthy. And the CPSIA in the US protects children from lead, amongst other things, but is costly and cumbersome for small business owners. Still, as consumers who don’t know that much about the science involved, they can be a good sign that a company or business is at least trying.

  7. That packaging thing is a big one. I won a bottle of eco-friendly dishwashing liquid recently and it arrived in a huge box filled with plastic bags and packing peanuts. I was beyond annoyed and although I loved the product, I wouldn’t give it a rave review.

    Another greenwashing annoyance is the word Organics in a brand name when the product isn’t organic at all! I saw one of those recently and it’s so infuriating because while I know to look further, most people (especially those just starting the green journey) don’t necessarily know the laws and loopholes. The laws for cosmetics are almost non-existent – And we thought the food regulations were loose!
    Janine’s last post … Sunday Link LoveMy Profile

  8. I also adore your list. 3rd party certifications are the best imho.

    Interestingly enough, there’s a new Nova Scotia Power building that’s being constructed in Halifax currently. It has a great big sign that says it will be LEED certified. ALL summer the lights in that building have been on all night, every night, when no one is there. I understand it has to do with security- but how wasteful and ridiculous is that? I’d prefer if Nova Scotia Power invested their money into building more sustainable power into what they offer customers.

    My pet peeve- claiming something is ‘biodegradable’ or ‘compostable’ when your organics system doesn’t accept them- for example bio-plastics. If they can’t compost in your backyard and your municipal organics system will just toss them in the landfill during sorting where there won’t be any oxygen or sun to break it down- then I don’t see how ‘compostable’ the product can be.
    EcoYogini’s last post … Ghost BikesMy Profile

  9. Thanks Amber. LOVE your guidelines. Have already “cut them out’ and put them in my wallet. Important reminders, thank you!

  10. the greenest thing is what you don’t buy, gotta love that ….and a hard shift for many!!

  11. Thanks to all Eco resorts that care about the natural environments, as well as promoting recycling and the use of natural resources, it’s our responsability to take care of what’s left in our planet.

    Setting the example is not the best way to make this happen, it’s the only way.

    Congratulations !!

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