In my late teens, something in my brain clicked, and I realized that I should be making a conscious effort to live a more sustainable lifestyle. I figured it was easy. With so many eco-friendly and green products there were on the market, I waltzed my way into sustainable living, but soon found myself caught in a wave of lies and deceit.

Greenwashing is when a company uses untruthful marketing to persuade the public into thinking its products are eco-friendly. Usually these products are far from being sustainable. It was a year into my sustainable journey that I began to realize the mistakes I’d made and why I shouldn't trust every company.

I decided to learn how to tell the difference between a sustainable product and a fake eco-friendly product. After Canada’s National Observer asked questions about definitions for the term greenwashing earlier this week, the Competition Bureau of Canada, the federal law enforcement agency that protects consumers, issued an alert to notify people to be on the lookout for the practice.

Young consumers can be naive and believe marketing campaigns instead of requesting legitimate data about sustainability. There are important factors to look for when trying to identify whether a product is truly sustainable — factors that go beyond word choice, packaging and company presentation.

Take a look at the company as a whole. Ask if it has other green initiatives or campaigns that focus substantially on the environment. Track its products and ingredients to the factory or farm if possible. In some cases, organizations and consumer groups do this work for you and the information is available online.

As was noted in the competition bureau alert, greenwashing is illegal because it misleads consumers. There are guidelines companies in Canada must follow when putting together marketing campaigns, like avoiding vague or misleading language.

Keurig Canada is facing a penalty of $3 million based on false claims regarding its coffee pods' recyclability. The competition bureau found the company used false or misleading information that led consumers to believe its single-use K-Cup pods were recyclable, but the pods are not widely accepted by municipal recycling programs outside British Columbia and Quebec. The competition bureau also said Keurig must also donate approximately $800,000 to a charity that focuses on environmental causes.

The power of words

People feel better buying products that are graced with the word “natural” as it allows us to feel like we are doing something positive for our own well-being and the well-being of our environment. The problem is, many products are able to work around the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) requirements.

Opinion: Young consumers can be naive and believe marketing campaigns instead of requesting legitimate data about the sustainability of products marketed as green, writes @AStefureak. #ClimateChange #FastFashion

The CFIA has regulations in place to protect consumers from what is essentially false advertising. While products labelled natural must not contain food additives (such as colourings or minerals) or be processed to a point where the original state of the food has been drastically altered, companies are still able to use “natural” if they frame it with other words.

Products that are labelled as containing “natural ingredients” or “natural flavours” contain processed ingredients, but are still able to call themselves “natural” if one of the ingredients falls under the CFIA guidelines. This is how that bag of potato chips in Aisle 6 has “natural” in big, bold lettering.

But what is that shirt made of?

An obvious rule of thumb when trying to tell if a product is greenwashed is to check the ingredient or components list. Clothing is a good example. The materials used to make clothing are listed inside the garment. Check and see if it contains materials such as polyester and acrylic, and if these materials are used, see if the company uses recycled materials in order to produce its clothing.

The competition bureau issues this warning about potential greenwashing on its website: "To attract environmentally conscious consumers, you may want to feature ads, slogans, logos and packaging highlighting environmental attributes or benefits of your product or service. However, if you portray your products and services as having more environmental benefits than they truly have, you may be greenwashing, which could be illegal."

An important thing to consider is greenwashing goes beyond ingredients and materials, it includes a product’s packaging. If a company holds interest in being sustainable, it will use environmentally friendly packaging and manufacturing techniques that avoid the use of single-use plastics and ensure the product is made using ethical practices. This could mean a company uses compostable materials to package its products or that the manufacturing uses less energy overall. Don’t be fooled by leaf-covered green packaging because companies will sometimes package regular products in green labels with the hope consumers will think it is more sustainable.

Clear as glass

If a company is using sustainable practices, it won’t just draw your attention to the product it is trying to sell, but to itself. Sustainability is a big check mark for a corporation, so if environmentally conscious efforts are being made, these efforts will be made public by being open with its business models and company data.

Sustainability should be integrated into every aspect of a business. If a company is truly interested in being eco-friendly and reducing its carbon footprint, it should apply to its entire business, not just a single product.

If you want to go even deeper, take a dip into the world of lobbying. This form of greenwashing could be the most harmful, yet is the least noticeable. Corporations may present themselves to be green, but their lobbying could tell another story. Companies don’t want consumers to see them using their power to change public policy to something less sustainable. Corporations only want us to see their green initiative that will have less of a positive impact than a full sustainable policy change because, at the end of the day, profits are the only real thing corporations care about.

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I appreciate the observations and a reminder is not a bad thing.

No need, in my opinion, to put an age on consumers who are [verb of choice: befuddled, confused, fed up, feeling dumb and/or unworthy, etc.] in trying to navigate product and business claims of sustainability (whatever that means). It is incredibly hard and very frustrating to be a conscientious consumer and citizen even for someone like myself with a year of graduate studies in environmental design and "sustainability" writ large and for whom it is a constant focus in life.

Whether it is adorning packaging with images of sunshine and cows munching in a flowery meadow or a cute, smiley munchkin downing a glass of juice, greenwashing goes much deeper, into "alternative" -- i.e. greenwashed -- "sustainability certifications" that compete with, what one might call, truly substantive and legitimate certification protocols. It is also entire industries, such as palm oil. Sure, there are a few firms that promise "ethical" palm oil that is less damaging to the environment; however, it is the product itself and its ubiquity in consumer goods that is the problem. Think of it like petroleum. It is ubiquitous and powers, still, our society but, given its impacts on the ecosphere and global geopolitics, can any of it be thought of as ethical? It is also the offshoring of resource extraction, refining and manufacturing, where the Global North is largely spared the noxious by-products that result from their creation before a packaged product fills a shelf at the local big box.

Etc. etc. etc.

Greenwashing accounts for only one of the three, ostensible "pillars of sustainability" (social, environmental, economic); there are also (my terms): hugwashing for the social, and buckwashing for the economic. Same idea as greenwashing.