Edit 07/12/17: I’ve deleted most parts of the GMO label. I’ll be researching the topic further and update accordingly! Thank you, Danica, for pointing out my misconceptions.
You’ve probably encountered greenwashing many times in your life. It may have started in the West, but it’s made it’s way to the Philippines where people are less educated and more gullible to fear mongering and misused labels.
Greenwashing is essentially giving the “it’s natural so it’s good for you” spiel. Natural ingredients may make us feel more safe because they’re familiar. Greenwashing, however, typically relies on sweeping generalizations. Sometimes even throwing shade at other brands to sell your own.
Brands often use it as a marketing tactic. Some brands actually do walk the talk, but most don’t. Human Nature is one example of brands that really embody the advocacy of the green movement. Their ingredients and products are locally harvested and made, environmental practices are in place like trading in empty bottles for discounts, and their social advocacies are unbeatable.
Developed countries are better able to distinguish bullshit marketing from actual advocacy. This article, for example, shows that awareness and responsible consumerism is on the rise in the UK.
Greenwashing is a big issue because it can actually be very harmful. Aside from encouraging ignorance and lack of critical thinking, all-natural does not mean better for you or the environment. It’s important to consider how and where the ingredient was harvested and how it affects life when washed off into the ground or oceans.
What to look out for?
- Misused labels: The terms natural and organic are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Cruelty-free is often mistaken as “vegan,” which doesn’t mean the same thing.
- Fake marketing: Brands don’t have to outright lie to make you believe a lie. St. Ives, for example, uses fruits on their label and labels their products as “100% Natural Extracts/Exfoliants/Whatever” though they use a lot of synthetic ingredients.
- Fear mongering: You know how labels and About pages of proudly all-natural brands often have a whole section dedicated to saying sulfates, preservatives, silicones, gluten, fragrance, etc are harmful? That’s fear mongering. There are ingredients you should be wary of (especially if you’re sensitive), but typically this is a misleading marketing tactic – even brands that market themselves as “all-natural” sometimes use these supposedly “harmful” ingredients.
Aren’t these labels better?
Sometimes. They should advocate for great causes like plant biodiversity, environmental conservation, and animal welfare.
GMOs, for example, are controversial because (1) it sounds scary, (2) there’s a lot of misinformation, and (3) testing methods have limitations. There are some really awesome advantages to GMOs. Golden rice, for example, is a great and beneficial product of this application. A lot of Filipinos lack Vitamin A, so in response, we started planting golden rice which has increased levels of vitamin A to help those in poverty get their daily recommended dose. Disadvantages of GMOs? Developing countries can’t compete with bigger countries that can offer the same crop for less money.
Are they better for me?
Nope. These claims are unregulated for the most part. In terms of marketing, they’re definitely not better for you because they rely on consumer misconceptions and miseducation.
How do we combat this?
- Encourage scientific research and consumer education. For the science of skincare to advance, there should be no place for fear mongering and more safe spaces for scientific inquiry.
- Learn to read a brand’s bullshit levels. The best way to know if a brand is just using these claims for marketing or if they genuinely care about the meaning of these labels is to know the brand’s advocacies. Four of these labels below require that brands derive their ingredients from natural resources, but rarely do brands enact environmentally-friendly practices. There’s quite a bit of hypocrisy here – to claim natural and not make it a point to preserve natural resources. Know the deeper meaning and reasoning behind these labels and read scientific journals that can prove and disprove their claims.
- Don’t worry too much. But be wary, of course. Learn to read labels and know which ingredients really are toxic in low concentrations. Typically, these “bad” ingredients aren’t going to harm you because they’re often in such low concentrations that even accumulation over time won’t be enough. If you’re going to support these claims, support the advocacies behind it because those are the causes really worth supporting.
Common Marketing Labels
Currently no regulation for the term.
Any brand can use it (and many do) despite not actually being “all-natural.” It might not have any “natural” ingredient, it could contain only one drop of a natural ingredient, or it could legitimately be completely natural, but all three can label their product as “natural.”
Case 1: A brand may not include any natural ingredient at all or have it at the very bottom of the list of ingredients (even at less than 1% concentration) and still call their product “natural.” This is especially common in cheap drugstore products.
Case 2: Sometimes brands can make you think they’re all-natural without actually being so. St. Ives, for example, uses fruits and plants on a clean label that gives the impression of a natural product when very few of their ingredients actually fall under that category. Misleading labels like “100% NATURAL moisturizers” can also be used.
Case 3: Sometimes consumers place the all-natural label on a brand without the brand ever claiming it. Lush, for example, is not an all-natural brand, nor have to be, but many people still think that they are.
The USDA does have requirements for it to officially consider a product organic. However, very few brands actually have this certification though many claim to be organic.
The very, very basic definition is that it must not be grown using synthetic pesticides but each governing body has their own set of approved farming methods for a product to be considered organic.
organic = natural
natural ≠ organic
The term “all natural” has no such regulations which is why organic = all-natural, but all-natural ≠ organic. Consumers often use the term interchangeably even though they are two very different terms. All-natural is easy to prove (just check the ingredient lists) but organic is not. The organic label requires certification. If a brand claims “organic,” ask them for their certification. If the brand itself does not have certification, ask for the certification of the suppliers of their ingredients. Otherwise, take all “organic” claims with a grain of salt.
The organic label typically advocates for plant biodiversity and preservation of natural resources. They have not been proven to be better or healthier for you. If the brand is certified organic, take note of the approved farming methods of the governing body. If the brand does not exemplify the advocacy as loudly as they use the “organic” label, it’s just marketing.
Please watch this. GMOs are a controversial issue and this video is a good summary/explanation for it. Basically, GMOs make it easier for us to grow food through modification. Non-GMO means that the plant has not been genetically modified.
No ingredient from the product is made from animals.
Does not mean the product is cruelty-free. A vegan product can still be tested on animals.
Does not mean “all-natural.” A vegan product can still contain synthetic ingredients.
Vegan ≠ Cruelty-Free
Vegan ≠ Natural
The product itself is not currently being tested on animals. The ingredients may have been, as long as it was not done by the brand selling the product. The “Leaping Bunny” is probably a symbol you’re familiar with. It’s the most common certification for a brand to call themselves “cruelty-free.”
Both “vegan” and “cruelty-free” labels advocate for animal welfare but animal welfare goes far beyond buying those two labels. Vegan and cruelty-free products can still be harmful to animal life. Certain “vegan” ingredients, for example, can cause coral bleaching or harm marine animals (i.e. sunscreens). Deforestation for agriculture still destroys animal habitats. Even climate change (which can be worsened by buying products abroad, wasteful packaging, disposables, etc) is a culprit. Both labels, like all the others mentioned, are multi-faceted issues. Brands that do not advocate for the many advocacies tied to these labels can actually be doing more harm than good.
It is also important to note that some of the biggest “cruelty-free” beauty brands have sister companies that are not cruelty-free. That brand may have been created to cater to that consumer base and I’m sure that there are people working for that brand who do genuinely care for animal welfare, but it’s clear that the company ultimately running them does not. NYX, Too Faced, and Urban Decay under L’Oreal and Estee Lauder are examples of this.
Cruelty-free is a pretty common marketing label. Truth is most startup beauty brands simply don’t have the funds for animal testing. Are they cruelty-free? Yes. Do they genuinely care for animal rights? Not necessarily. If being cruelty-free was because of financial constraints rather than a conscious decision, the use of “cruelty-free” often becomes just a marketing label.
Fancy word for “from plants.” Doesn’t mean anything. Botanical does not necessarily mean powerful, potent, or better than natural, organic, vegan, etc. It just means the ingredient comes from plants.
There is no such thing as reef-friendly. Everything is toxic – it just depends at what concentration does an ingredient become toxic.
Vegan, cruelty-free, natural, organic, etc does NOT imply reef-friendly. Even natural, vegan ingredients can become harmful when washed off into the ground or ocean. I have a separate post for the reef-friendly label coming up within the week!
You can usually tell when a product is handmade/homemade, typically by the texture or consistency. No regulation so a brand could simply repackage a ready-made product and call it “handmade.”
As with anything, take everything with a grain of salt – brands, bloggers, especially me. My knowledge is limited and there’s no better way to form your own stand than by researching yourself. SciShow is a great resource on YouTube if researching isn’t your strong point. There are a number of other great YouTube channels creating awesome, science-based videos! AsapScience and Kurzgesagt – In A Nutshell are a few! If you have access to a library, ScienceDirect is my personal favorite.
Hope you can share your thoughts and research! You can email me or message me directly if you’d rather not comment publicly. If there’s any mistake, broken link, or outdated info above, please let me know so I can edit accordingly.