As healthy, ethical, and sustainable food shopping has become critically important to consumers, more and more brands are working to ensure their products fit the bill. While some brands have legitimately stepped up to the plate to improve their offerings, others have taken advantage of shoppers’ good intentions with deceiving marketing. For example, some brands champion their use of “natural” sweeteners instead of high-fructose corn syrup, even though both have similar effects on health), or slapping a label like “whole grain” or “high protein” on a product to make it sound healthy, despite the realities of its entire nutritional and ingredients profile.
This kind of healthwashing has long been a problem, but with new urgency around the climate crisis, some brands are now deceiving shoppers through greenwashing. “Greenwashing is when brands make their [products] sound more sustainable and eco-friendly than they actually are,” says Brian Kateman, president and co-founder of Reducetarian Foundation.
Some of the greenwashing tactics are downright sneaky, which is why it helps to know exactly how to spot them. Here, Kateman and Wen-Jay Ying, the founder of Local Roots NYC, reveal how to tell fact from marketing fiction when shopping with ethics and sustainability in mind.
How to spot greenwashing in action
One of the biggest ways brands greenwash their products, Ying says, is by using vague terms that sound good but in reality carry no weight. This is where that ubiquitous phrasing of “natural” comes in. “You often see this with meat—’all-natural meat’—but when you dig deeper, there’s actually not information about how the animals were treated or what they were fed,” Ying says.
Kateman agrees, saying if you buy animal products and care how they were treated, it’s better to look for actual certifications on the label, such as Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, and Global Animal Partnership. Additionally, some certification programs also take ethical treatment of workers into account, including Fair Trade Certified, Certified B Corporation, and Food Justice Certified. Brands with any of these certifications have meet standard showing that all workers involved with the sourcing and manufacturing are treated well and paid fairly.
Ying says another way brands often fool consumers is by using packaging that have an eco-friendly feel to it. “For example some brands use craft bags or you’ll see potato chips in a bag that’s eco-friendly,” she says. Eco-friendly packaging is always a win, but Ying says just because a brand uses a recyclable paper bag instead of plastic doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire product is eco-friendly. There are other factors to consider, including what the product is, how it’s made, what the ingredients are and how they’re sourced, etc.
This is another instance when Kateman says looking for certifications can he helpful. “An increasing number of food brands, like Quorn, are using carbon labels,” he says, referring to a new type of label that refer to a product’s total carbon footprint, packing included. (Companies with a B Corp Certification also take sustainability into account.) Buying locally sourced food is another way to ensure what you’re buying has a smaller carbon footprint than if it was sourced from another state or country.
What to keep in mind when shopping for environmentally-friendly food
However, there are limitations to these certifications. For one thing, they might inadvertently come with a health- or green halo that can be misleading to consumers. For example, many healthy shoppers gravitate toward foods with a certified organic label; while Ying says that’s great in terms of minimizing the amount of pesticides you’re exposed to, a certified organic label doesn’t take into account how farm-workers and others involved in the food supply chain are treated. (Organic also doesn’t always mean better for the environment, either.)
Additionally, Ying says that the process of getting certified can be incredibly expensive for smaller brands, which is why some opt not to spring for it despite technically meeting the requirements. (Essentially, a certification doesn’t tell the full story.) This is why she favors buying locally-made food as much as possible—since consumers can directly support farmers and food suppliers in their local area while simultaneously getting a better sense of where their food comes from and how it’s made. It also can’t hurt to reach out to your favorite brands and ask them about their practices directly, such as if they’ve had a third-party life cycle assessment (which looks at a product’s impact on a variety of environmental factors from creation to purchase), where they source ingredients, and more.
Of course just like shopping organic, it may not be in your budget to ensure everything you buy is truly eco-friendly. Ying’s advice is to prioritize focusing on the foods that you buy most often, such as meat or certain veggies. That will have the biggest impact.
The bottom line when it comes to avoiding greenwashing is that certifications are a good tip-off into finding brands to support that truly are ethical and sustainable. But shopping local can help too—especially in terms of supporting small brands that may not be able to afford certification but technically meet the requirements needed. “No brand is perfect,” Kateman says. “Everything we consume has some impact on the planet, so don’t let perfection by the enemy of the good. Do the best you can to sort out the good from the bad. That’s all any of us can ever do.”