Green Cleaning (Without the Greenwashing)

By Sam Smith

It’s hard to make eco-friendly choices.
Especially when we are overwhelmed with countless advertisements from a variety of brands claiming to offer “the greenest, the cleanest, the eco-friendliest, simply the very best thing you could do for the planet” products. With seemingly countless options, how are we meant to decide which is the best for us, and for the planet? Since they cannot all be the very best, the very greenest, how can we differentiate and ultimately make good choices that reduce our footprint and help leave the world better than we found it? 


An Inconvenient (for them) Truth
The unfortunate truth is that a lot of companies are using a tactical marketing approach, taking advantage of the higher demand for sustainable solutions by using high-traction buzzwords, clever turns of phrase, or downright misinformation to gain footing in the eco-conscious market. The term for this approach is called greenwashing, and in Canada it is illegal. Greenwashing is “considered an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company's products are environmentally friendly.  stated by the Competition Bureau of Canada.


“The Competition Act takes aim at environmental claims that are vague, non specific, incomplete, or irrelevant and that cannot be supported through verifiable test methods.“


In theory, all businesses would abide by the rules and we could trust their claims. This charming Utopian vision (you know the one:  we all get along, swim with the dolphins, and drink the water from a stream without a second thought) is a far cry from the reality we are faced with. We must be vigilant when it comes to selecting the brands we choose to support. There are a few key ways that we, the savvy consumers that we are, can sift through the plastics and get to the biodegradable goodies.


Watch their Language
Check for buzzwords that have little to no substance. These can be used as ingenious disguises, masks veiling little more than an unbacked claim to downright nonsense in some cases. Companies are gaining momentum with flashy advertising and creative brand naming. The simple act of putting “eco” in your product name does not, in fact, make it eco friendly.

Some keywords and phrasing to keep an eye out for are:

  • Eco or Environmentally-Friendly
  • Natural
  • Green Certified
  • Sustainable

These claims need to be backed by verifiable references. Additionally, these claims are usually based on a single attribute (for example, that a product is biodegradable or recyclable), rather than on the environmental impact of the product's entire life cycle.

For example:

  • An eco-friendly product can be manufactured with ingredients that are sourced from unethical manufacturers, or shipped in non-recyclable packaging materials.
  • Natural is a regulated term in Canada for health and food products only. This means that only 1% of ingredients need to be “natural” in order for the product to be considered natural. It is always best practice to read the label and understand the ingredients to the fullest extent possible.
  • “Green Certified” can mean anything. A company can certify that their products are green based on their own internal requirements and quality control systems. Look for provincially or federally approved certifications. If there is no verifiable link, steer clear!
Dig up the Dirt
We can surmise that these companies are operating under the assumption that we will not do our research. In most cases, that is likely to be accurate. Who has the time to research every dish soap, laundry detergent, surface cleaner, and cosmetic that they use on a daily basis? The good news is that there are independent third-parties who are doing most of the legwork for us. Below are some of the most helpful guides we’ve come across to help make informed choices, and not be swayed by the advertising cacophony.


Environmental Working Group
The EWG was established over 30 years ago. Their consumer guides are incredibly helpful in making sustainable, conscious choices. They also have a rating system which includes an in-depth analysis of the ingredients in hundreds of products.


Queen of Green (in partnership with the David Suzuki Foundation)
This handy eco-label guide from the Queen of Green is an excellent resource for sussing out whether the products you're vetting are true-blue, or just green with envy. Any company that has gone through the rigorous testing of an eco-certification will be more than happy to share the details of their certification. After all, don’t we all prominently display our awards on the shelf? 


When All Else Fails, Ask
There is no shame in asking for help! It’s easy to get overwhelmed in a sea of greenwashing. If questions exist about a product, reach out to the company directly. An MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) should be supplied upon request for any applicable products. Further, the ingredients list should be readily available on their website.


Final Thought
There is no better way to be green than to do your personal best every day. This is a moving target, and nobody gets it right 100% of the time. We live in a constantly evolving world, where the products available to us seem to change from day to day. There is no guilt or shame in making a choice that down the line seems less than ideal. We can only continue to strive together for a cleaner, kinder world.
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