Greenwashing. Who can we trust?

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

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Increased environmental consciousness, a desire for products with fewer synthetic ingredients, and a general trend towards healthier and more sustainable lifestyles have all driven a rising demand for ethical, sustainable and “natural” products.

By now, most of us are familiar with the term ‘greenwashing’ – the practice of making a company or product seem more environmentally friendly than it actually is.

Sadly, as customers become more and more aware of the impact their shopping choices have on people and planet, many brands are employing greenwashing tactics.

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This makes it harder to tell the difference between companies that are genuinely invested in sustainable practices and those that just pay lip service to ethics and the environment.

While greenwashing is used across many different sectors, the beauty and skincare industry seems to be especially vulnerable.

These are products that most of us use on our bodies daily, so it’s no surprise that finding safe skincare is a priority for many people.

Some brands have responded to this concern with thoughtful, robust, and traceable attempts to make their products safer for both humans and the natural world. However, others have taken less care in their approach, opting for headline-grabbing initiatives and bold eco-claims that don’t hold up under scrutiny.

As a result, spotting genuinely sustainable skincare and beauty brands can be tricky. In this blog post, we lay out some of the common greenwashing tactics to watch out for – and shed some light on why brands might sometimes fall short, even when they’re trying to do the right thing.

This is a complex topic and we’re just scratching the surface. But we hope we’ll give you a good starting point on which to build your own research.

What Are the Rules Around Greenwashing?

Before we dive into the greenwashing practices you might see employed by the beauty industry, a quick look at what the law says about making misleading environmental claims.

Although there’s no specific law about greenwashing in the UK, there have been some attempts to regulate what claims companies can make.

In 2021, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published the Green Claims Code. The code lays out six principles that companies must abide by when they communicate their green credentials.

These principles were already part of existing laws aimed at protecting consumers against misleading advertising claims. But the Code makes it more explicit what companies need to do to support their environmental claims, including avoiding vague language and considering the whole product, not just a part of it.

Publishing the Code also gave a clear indicator that the CMA is cracking down on greenwashing and expects businesses to be more transparent in how they justify their declarations of sustainability.

Although it’s a positive step in the right direction, the Code is relatively new, and the CMA is still working its way through the different sectors to investigate whether their claims meet its principles.

In the meantime, much of the work of unpicking the validity of eco-friendly credentials still falls on the customer.

What Greenwashing Tactics Should You Look Out For?

Finding truly environmentally friendly beauty products really can seem like an impossible task. When every brand seems to splash words like ‘clean’, ‘natural’, ‘green’ and ‘toxin-free’ liberally over its packaging, how can you spot which claims are legit?

Although this isn’t an exhaustive list, we’ve compiled some of the most common ways beauty brands attempt to speak to their customers’ environmental concerns – without necessarily being wholly honest about their claims.

1. Misleading Packaging Claims

We’re all well aware that plastic packaging is causing huge problems for our planet. And the beauty industry plays a significant role in this issue.

According to the British Beauty Council, only 14% of beauty product packaging makes it to a recycling plant, only 9% is recycled, and the rest ends up in landfill.

So, it is no surprise that addressing packaging issues is often a key focus for beauty brands looking to improve their eco-friendly image. Many have launched bottles made from recycled and/or recyclable plastic, while others have ditched plastic in favour of metal or glass.

Unfortunately, the way brands communicate these changes can be misleading. For example, some brands have claimed their bottles are “100% recyclable” – but the small print reveals that this doesn’t extend to the lids.

Other companies trumpet their use of alternative packaging materials. However, they ignore that their caps and droppers are still made of plastic.

Another tactic is putting a visible “made from recycled materials” sticker on packaging. Often, it is only when you closely read the fine print that you discover this only covers a small percentage of the total packaging.

Vague language is also common. Companies claim their packaging is “more sustainable” or “contains less plastic” without saying what they’re comparing it with.

While attempts to reduce plastic packaging should be welcomed, we’re leery of claims that make it seem like brands are doing more than they actually are.

We know it’s possible to make truly plastic-free skincare packaging, because that’s exactly what we’ve managed to do here at Whitfords.

2. Use of Unregulated Buzzwords

We’ve looked at how beauty brands misrepresent the sustainability of their packaging, so let’s turn now to what’s inside the bottle.

As consumers, we want reassurance and peace of mind. We want to know who to trust. After all, we are applying cosmetic products to our skin and our children’s skin.

The EU has one of the strictest cosmetic regulations in the world, which the UK has also adopted following Brexit. There’s a very specific and detailed pre-market approval process and before placing a cosmetic product on the market, the formula must be externally assessed and approved for safety. All products must be notified to the authorities.

However, globalisation has made it possible for us to purchase skincare from brands from all around the world. As a result, you might be buying a product with a formula that hasn’t even been tested for safety before being placed on the market. This is because some countries, like the US, rely on post-market surveillance instead of pre-market approval.

To complicate matters, countries have different definitions of what a “cosmetic” product is. One might consider a certain ingredient a “cosmetic” ingredient, while a different country might consider it a “drug” and ban its use in cosmetic products. For example, anti-dandruff shampoo is a cosmetic in the EU. But in Japan, it’s considered a quasi-drug.

You see the problem here and why it’s so confusing for consumers trying to choose the right products.

Companies have responded to the demand for safe cosmetics and tried to instil trust in their products by claiming to be “clean”, “natural”, “toxin-free” or “chemical-free”.

The trouble here is that there’s little regulation around what these terms mean or how they are used. Some are simply ridiculous. We’re sure you know by now that everything is a chemical, so how can any cosmetic be chemical free?

Others are just misleading. Natural is a great example. This term is everywhere in the skincare industry, but it’s not regulated. It can simply mean that some of the ingredients in the product are derived from nature. But this tells us little about how the ingredients are grown or processed – things that can have a big impact on their environmental footprint.

Even the word organic can be misused. Although it is strictly controlled for the food and drink industry, the term organic is currently unregulated for beauty products. Brands might claim that a product “contains organic ingredients” when only a tiny percentage of the ingredients are actually organically grown.

Certification schemes are useful here. Labelling schemes like COSMOS/Soil Association and Leaping Bunny demonstrate that there’s third-party scrutiny supporting a brand’s claims.

However, getting certified can be expensive and time-consuming, which is a major barrier for smaller brands. So, labelling schemes are helpful, but they aren’t the only indicator that a brand is doing the right thing.

And be wary – some beauty brands are unscrupulous enough to use imagery on packaging that mimics accreditation schemes without actually being certified by them. So, if you see a bunny on a skincare product, be sure to check that the brand genuinely is certified with one of the cruelty-free schemes before buying.

Speaking of misleading imagery, another common tactic is using packaging and branding to imply that a product is plant-based when it is most synthetic.

So, don’t be taken in by images of flowers and leaves or product names that refer to nature – the product inside might not reflect the green feel of the outside.

4. Plastic, Plastic Everywhere

We’re all aware of the problems with plastic packaging. But it isn’t only packaging where plastic can sneak into our cosmetics and beauty products.

In 2018, the UK Government banned microplastics in rinse-off cosmetic products. While this was a welcome move, it isn’t the end of the issue. The ban only extends to rinse-off products, which means those that are applied to the skin and left on can still contain plastic.

What’s more, the ban only covers sold microplastics (which you may know as microbeads). Products can still contain liquid plastics, which are used in many beauty and personal care items. And these liquid plastics can be just as damaging for the environment.

Many cosmetic brands are happy to confirm that they no longer use microbeads, but they are strangely silent on the whole issue of liquid plastics in their products.

Fortunately, the campaigning group, Plastic Soup Foundation has launched a scheme to help consumers avoid plastics in their cosmetics. You can use their app to scan labels for hidden plastics and look out for brands (like Whitfords) that carry the “Look for the Zero” label to show there’s no plastic in their products.

4. Ignoring the Wider Picture

If a brand is really, truly, 100% committed to making its beauty products more sustainable, we expect to see that attitude flow through everything it does.

It shouldn’t be limited to a single ethical line or one product in plastic-free packaging. It should extend to the entire range. And we’d also expect it to be embedded across their working practices – everything from how they choose their manufacturing and office premises to how they work with suppliers.

Too often, beauty brands focus on just one product or area of their work and shout about their sustainability efforts, while continuing with business as usual elsewhere.

It’s comparable to fast fashion brands that release the occasional line made from recycled cotton – a sticking plaster over a gaping wound that needs a much more thorough and thought-through approach.

Smaller brands can often have an advantage here. With their more limited scale, they can bring higher levels of scrutiny to each area of their activities. This becomes harder as businesses grow.

That said, it isn’t easy being a sustainability-committed small brand, as we know first-hand. We lack the buying power that big brands can wield, making it harder for us to find suppliers for packaging and ingredients that meet our ethics. This limits our choices and means we need to put a lot of extra time into finding manufacturers and distributors who are prepared to supply the smaller quantities we need.

Another aspect worth paying attention to is who owns what in the beauty and personal care industry. Big companies often have several smaller brands under their umbrella. And while some of those brands might be making progress on their environmental credentials, the parent company may be less green and shiny.

5. Lack of Robustness and Transparency

Most of all, we’re wary of any brand that makes claims about its sustainability without explaining exactly what that means. After all, it isn’t easy for companies to be truly green.

Just as beauty companies sometimes try to mislead their customers, suppliers in their turn can also make misleading claims about the ingredients or processes they use.

Take for example sodium cocoyl isethionate. This is a popular ingredient with eco-friendly beauty brands because it is a solid surfactant that can be used to make solid shampoo or conditioner bars.

Sodium cocoyl isethionate is usually described as “derived from coconut” – another reason it is popular with companies looking for safe, natural ingredients. However, this isn’t the whole truth. Whist it’s true that it’s derived from coconut, it’s also derived from petroleum-derived raw materials.

At Whitfords, we’re committed to making 100% petroleum-free skincare. Although petroleum technically comes from “nature”, it’s not renewable and therefore doesn’t fit our commitment to making sustainable skincare.

So, we’ve spent a lot of time on the phone and over email probing the main manufacturers of sodium cocoyl isethionate about where the raw materials in their ingredients come from.

In each instance, it’s taken a lot of back and forth before the supplier eventually admits that a percentage of their sodium cocoyl isethionate is indeed derived from petroleum. One manufacturer even gave us a “maybe” as their final answer.

Of course, they don’t mention this on their marketing and sales copy or the ingredient documentation. If we hadn’t interrogated their claims more closely, we’d never have reached the truth.

To date, we haven’t found a single manufacturer of sodium cocoyl isethionate that can give us a petroleum-free declaration. If you are one or know one, we’d love to hear from you!

Our experience shows that brands aren’t always trying to mislead their customers when it comes to being sustainable. But even when they think they are doing their best, beauty and skincare brands need to take a very careful look at everything they include in their products.

If they are putting the legwork in, they should be proud to share the information with you. Look for openness and transparency about the ingredients they use and how they are sourced and processed.

Brands should also explain what they do to check these claims and whether they carry any third-party certification that can back up their credentials. Smaller brands may not be able to afford certification, but they should still be able to tell you what they are doing to check their ingredients truly meet their standards.

For example, at Whitfords we have a page dedicated to explaining exactly what we’re doing on each of the issues that matters to us. You can read about our approach to packaging, why we don’t use the word “natural”, petroleum-derived ingredients, or synthetic fragrances in our products.

Because we’re not perfect, but we’re clear on where we stand. And we want to make sure you’re clear too.

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