Since 2009, the number of nominally green or environmentally-friendly products available in Canada has increased by an astonishing 73 percent.
A 2010 study by Canadian environmental organization TerraChoice showed that only five percent of 5,296 products tested were as green as their labels claimed. Ninety-five percent of these product labels were therefore intentionally misleading, or greenwashed. Worse yet, countless green products are recurrently found to contain highly toxic chemicals. When it comes to labels, it seems, there’s plenty you need to recognize, avoid, and embrace when you’re going green.
While green product labels are often persuasive, several greenwashing techniques are easy to spot. Watch out for intentional vagueness. Terms like “green” itself, and “all-natural” suggest a lot while saying little. Arsenic, for example, is all-natural, but can be very toxic. While a plastic bottle–like nearly anything–is technically degradable, this unremarkable attribute might garner a misleading mention on its label. Suspicious third-party endorsement is another warning sign: simply by searching a term like “certified green” in a stock photo website, anyone can download fake green labels for a couple dollars each.
With a little extra diligence, Canadians can avoid being duped. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) offers its seal of approval–ISO 14020-14024–on products worthy of green labeling. Easily recognizable logos are certified under the ISO 14020 family, like the Canadian EcoLogo which itself certifies over 7,500 products, and Energy Star, which identifies the most energy-efficient appliances on the market.
Even when products are ethically labeled, harmful chemicals can lurk in your cosmetics, cleaning products, and even baby products. The TerraChoice study found around 70 percent of products with ISO 14024 labeling were still guilty of some form of greenwashing. Look for chemicals like diethanolamine, parabens, PEGs (polyethylene glycols), and ETDA (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid). These toxins harm human tissues and aquatic life, and are sure tip-offs that your green product is anything but.
While the commodification of environmental activism is still an enormous problem, there’s some light at the end of the smokestack: according to TerraChoice, the proportion of truly green products available more than quadrupled between 2007 and 2010. Perhaps partly due to heightened public scrutiny and pressures, big box stores now offer an especially high proportion of green products you can trust, and fewer products making false green claims.