If you’ve filled up on gas, bought a plane ticket or checked your grocery bill, you know that the fastest inflation in 40 years is biting hard.
Those soaring prices mean tougher decisions at check-out. For those of us who are already paying more for organic produce, wild-caught salmon, natural skin care items or “green” detergent, we have tough decisions to make. So-called sustainable products can cost 75% to 85% more than their conventional peers.
The dilemma comes just as Americans are trying to be more responsible consumers, a trait that emerged stronger from the pandemic. The upcoming Generation Z cohort, which makes up more than 40% of U.S. consumers, is willing to pay more to buy sustainably.
And marketers have us pegged. They know sustainability sells. They aren’t shy about stretching the limits of legality in their descriptions of products. It’s a trick known as greenwashing and it’s endemic across product lines, particularly food, beauty and health.
How can you tell if you’re being greenwashed?
It begins with packaging. When we scan store aisles, we’re lured by product designs aimed at convincing us that products are “green.” Do items have green and brown labels? Do they show pictures of leaves? These common marketing techniques may have little or no bearing on items’ true sustainability.
Words matter, too. Take the term “all natural.” It means nothing in terms of the origin and content of the ingredients. A product could be packed with chemical preservatives and still sport the “all natural” label without breaking any rules. The same goes for other commonly used terms like “bio” and “sustainable.”
The fault also lies with consumers, who may have inaccurate or prejudiced assumptions of what’s healthy. We might avoid a product containing sodium nitrate but happily buy one containing celery salt. In fact, they are nearly the same thing.
It’s a sustainability jungle out there. What’s a consumer to do?
First, determine what’s important: Is it human rights, animal rights, using renewable resources? You’ll have an easier time knowing what to avoid — and what’s OK — once you’ve established your priorities.
Then follow these simple steps to align your consumption with your values.
1. Be alert for greenwashing terms: Natural, clean, sustainable, renewable, naturally derived, eco-friendly. Manufacturers aren’t required to follow any legal mandates when they use these phrases. Yet you often pay more for them.
2. Beware of misleading substitutions in cosmetics. Manufacturers may list “essential oil” in lieu of “parfum.” But essential oils are not necessarily better for the skin. In some cases, they can be worse.
3. Beware of your own misconceptions. The zinc oxide in sunscreen gets a bad rap because of some potential health risks, but it actually works well in preventing sunburn. What’s more, it works better than many so-called natural substitutions.
4. Products that tout their truthful sustainable credentials aren’t always the best. “Cage-free” eggs cost more than conventional, but the hens are often forced to live in overcrowded barns.
5. Question your assumptions and your eyes. Beautifully presented bamboo packaging may actually be worse for the planet than plastic given concerns over deforestation and monocultures. Cardboard wrapping may be coated with wax and not recyclable. The most sustainable kind of packaging is something made of plastic or glass that can be reused or reliably recycled.
6. Seek products whose descriptions actually mean something. Items labeled “organic,” for example, are required by U.S. law to be 95% composed of organic ingredients. Products labelled “made with organic …” only have to meet a 70% standard.
7. Select products with the fewest, most-recognizable ingredients. A short list is usually a sign that the product is relatively healthy.
8. Organic isn’t everything. Consider the product’s origins. A brand of soap might have impeccable ingredients but if it has to travel halfway around the world, it’s likely less sustainable than a local product in terms of carbon emissions. If you have an option, buy products that are produced close to home. Buying local is usually more sustainable.
Adopting these reality checks before making a purchase can help us avoid falling for greenwashing. Ultimately, though, no one can expect to get it right every time, or break their budget.
Being a sustainable consumer is tough and potentially expensive. First determine your top priorities and buy accordingly. Remember to cut yourself some slack. Doing better is better than doing nothing.
Maria Steingoltz is a managing director and head of L.E.K. Consulting’s Chicago office.