Monday 5 December 2011

A word on 'Greenwashing'

Greenwashers can scram!!!

You know what, for a long time I wasn't going to do this - what I am about to do. I wasn't going to rubbish products as a way of promoting natural skincare. I wanted people to see the benefits in clean products for their own merits, not because they had been scared into using them over something else.

But now... Sod it! This greenwashing thing has really cheesed me off, one step too far. 

For some time now many synthetic chemicals used in our everyday products have been under question. Interest and research on this matter is growing and the natural and organic cosmetic industry has boomed - and still continues to boom. Great! Except that the big brands realised that the organic skincare industry had been taking a big bite out of their pie and in a disappointingly predictable way, they wanted in too.

The shelves in just about every store selling cosmetics are crammed with products that reference natural plant extracts either in their very name, the product description or its packaging. Words like 'pure' and 'natural' along with pictures of leaves and flowers and slow motion footage of coconuts breaking open on a lovely rock by a lagoon in paradise - it all works towards creating a brand image. One of purity; of trustworthiness; of superiority and ultimately effectiveness. 

But guess what? These lovely, effective and trustworthy natural extracts are in a base of chemical penetration enhancers, flow enhancers, detergents, fragrance and preservatives. A whole mixture of things that can upset skin, triggering allergies, contact dermatitis, eczema, chapping and dehydration. And yet so many of these more subtle effects are probably never attributed to the product and that isn't even hinting at the long term potential harm that some ingredients could cause.

The labelling laws surrounding cosmetics are laughable. With terminology becoming meaningless. 'Pure', 'natural' and even 'organic' mean very little when printed on the front of a product because there is no legal definition on these kinds of words. Although 'organic' is a standard that is certified by various organisations (with varying criteria and therefore varying standards of 'organic'), this need only apply to one ingredient and this can be in miniscule proportions in the formula. Known carcinogens are permitted for use in toiletries simply due to the argument that in small enough doses, they are harmless. Skin irritants are used for the same reason. Nevermind that these ingredients can be present in every single product you use during the course of a day. 'Limited exposure' is suddenly not so limited. All such suspect ingredients are used simply because they are cheap and the industries surrounding their manufacture are huge. 

To vilify just a few, brands like Simple, Herbal Essences, The Body Shop, Palmolive, Radox, Sanex, Garnier tout around their natural ingredients like a badge of honour, deceiving the regular consumer into thinking they have in their hands something good, something 'pure'. We know now that in cosmetics this means nothing. PR is big bucks and companies like this know how to prise the pennies out of our well-meaning wallets. And I've had enough!

What prompted my outburst here was reading this on Twitter by @BeautyShortlist about Nivea Pure and Natural:

This bold advance by Nivea into the the natural beauty sector had not gone unnoticed by me. They have formulated this range without the use of parabens, silicones, mineral oils and colourants, yet browsing through their ingredients lists they still use parfum, other odour masking ingredients and preservatives that can all upset skin. Naughty Nivea indeed. After reading a call to arms on the Beauty Shortlist website I had to break my own rule and flag this up. Please do read the post on the link above.

So here's what to do...

For the worst offenders check my Hit List Page which is a very basic list of the some of the most common and yet most easily avoidable ingredients (I will continue to add to this as it is by no means exhaustive).

Check out anything you are suspicious of on the SkinDeep Database by the Environmental Working Group. This is a great resource to see what research has indicated in the safety of the chemicals in our products.

Another great site for reference is at the Green Pages of the Beauty Bible website. I do recommend reading The Green Beauty Bible as a great introduction to why it matters to pick clean, green, natural and organic products and gives great recommendations on products tested by regular consumers. But beware the rest of the website does not have these issues at heart and even within these more natural brands promoted by the book there are still some guilty parties!!)

So Final Words:
People! READ THE LABELS! Do not trust everything you read on the front of a bottle! No matter who makes it. Do not trust the marketing fatcats! Use your purchasing power! Know what you are buying! And please, please, please share this! Viva La Revolution!


  1. When Unilever win gold at the Green Awards, there is little hope for anything. The whole industry is full of cynicism and greenwash - I've been in the organic sector for 3+ years now as a retailer and am about to call it a day. It's no different to any other sector - capitalism and corporates are calling the shots.

  2. I think you're right there - it always comes down to profits. We have little choice in our lives to be anything but a consumer in one way or another so the only weapon we have against the multi-nationals is damaging their profits and voting with our wallets. Price isn't everything. Demanding cheaper and cheaper products can only worsen a problem like this. It's a much bigger issue than just organic beauty - fair trade and organic food production is of equal concern. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Your article sums up beautifully the motivation behind the creation of my certified organic skincare brand Natural Wisdom. I was dismayed to dispair in 2006-7 when studying product ingredients. I realised the vast majority were more than 90% full of cheap, weak,bulking agents and fillers...water, wax emulsifiers, sunflower oil, silicones, cheap refined cosmetic ingredients that do NOTHING for the skin and of course chemicals.

    I designed my skincare range to be 100% concentrated & bioactive and I researched everything carefully on Skin Deep before using it. I wanted to create the skincare that woman would want to design for themselves if they new how to go about it.

    Natural Wisdom is the polar oposite to bright white, heavily refined chemical skincare 'greenwashed' to be 'natural'. I feel for the 'anonomous' comment. I would like to say to him/her and to anyone reading this...."WE MUST BE THE CHANGE WE WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD" Don't give up, fight on.

    There has just been a court ruling stopping people from using the word organic to describe a product that is made with less than 70% organic ingredients. As for the big coporate lying, cheating, thieving, greedy multinationals....their days are drawing to a close. Rome fell, thay will also fall and I am confident it will happen in my life time. So chin up and fly the 'REALLY NATURAL & ORGANIC flag!! cos we are coming through!! :-)

  4. Maeve thank you so much for your comment. That's great news about the court ruling on products with less than 70% organic ingredients being able to call themselves organic. I'm optimistic this issue will one day be a topic everyone is concerned about - just like many food issues have been in the past. A swing towards change is already in motion! Thanks again.

  5. I do hope the tide will soon turn against these cheap and nasty brands. On the most basic level, we have a choice to spend our hard earned cash on a brand that's full of cheap man-made chemicals, in expensive packaging and has been heavily marketed (we pay for all that!) or we can choose a product full of beneficial ingredients to skin, that in the long-term promotes healthy skin and often helps support organic farming and fair trade projects.

    Organic and natural products really perform these days, so I know what I would choose to spend my money on!

    Mind you I don't think it's fair to put LUSH in with those greenwashing brands, they clearly label those ingredients that are man-made and they don't push themselves as a 'natural' brand.

    It's those man-made brands that jump on the natural bandwagon and label themselves as 'pure' 'natural' 'organic'and 'mineral' yet contain plenty of harmful synthetics that are causing the consumer confusion. On a seperate note, I find it disgraceful that baby skincare companies like Johnson & Johnson still to this day use two potentially harmful ingredients - and parents trust this brand on their babies!

  6. Yes I have seen this J+J thing and I really think that baby care is one area where we really meed to be more stringent.

    I will just add, the thing about Lush - I take you point but although they don't try to convince you of their natural credentials its the imagery and reference to natural ingredients, - lemons and oranges and lavender etc... all these foodie kinds of refs paint a picture in our minds. Walking down the toiletry aisle in the supermarket makes my blood boil for seeing all these brands doing it. RADOX, PALMOLIVE spring to mind! I think Lush is guilty of the same, though not the worst offender I admit.

    Genuine clean products really do perform and I'm so glad more and more people are using products not only because they work but because they out-perform their non-natural rivals!

    Thanks for commenting. :-)

  7. OK UPDATE>>
    After considering LUSH's presence on this post I have decided to remove them and have also rather meanly decided to put Palmolive in there instead. This is because they really do make out they are something they are not whereas LUSH do make mention of using 'safe synthetics' and I want to be fair. Palmolive do no such thing. So there. Balance restored.

  8. Amazing post! So well expressed, well done x

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