Below is an article from our guest author Susie Hewson, the founder of the Natracare brand. Natracare offers sustainable personal care products for everyone. In her article, Susie shares her own experience with greenwashing in the area of organic personal care products.
Back in the day, people used to use something called whitewash on their outside walls, to cover up dirt and cracks and make the wall look better. Since then, the word “whitewashing” has come to mean, evasively focusing on the good parts of a situation or telling a few white lies, in order to convince people it’s better than it really is.
Concern for wildlife, environment and climate change has focused consumer concerns on the impacts of products and services, and as a consequence, the appearance of a new marketing tactic, designed to mislead, has blossomed forth!
Greenwashing. Where a company or brand focuses on one good aspect or uses confusing
phrases, hoping undesirable remaining parts will be overlooked. Labelling claims can be difficult to validate with the use of terms implying a better choice to allay fears of their negative impact, and/or the use of symbols suggesting a credible certification mark.
Another trick is to create internal standards or terms without evidence of qualification, to impress and confuse. Clearly, consumers and retailers need to ask more questions about the products we buy. Surely, there exists independent standards to validate claims.
Legally, the word organic has a definition, in relation to agriculture, but outside the legal boundaries of the term, it’s perhaps easily gamed. I was on the Soil Association advisory panel for the review of GOTS and I submitted a suggested addition of a section in the standards specifically for textile personal care products – my specialism and interest being sanitary tampons and pads. This was subsequently published March 2017 as GOTS Version 5.0 making sure to protect the integrity of the 100% organic status of tampons I had spent the past 28 years creating. I soon started to notice a rash of GOTS certified organic tampon brands, intended to win over conscious consumers, marketing their tampons with disposable plastic applicators – labelled as ‘plant-based’ or ‘BPA free’ implying a benefit to the environment and the user. In addition, several brands were also using a synthetic nonwoven veil, wrapped around the cotton core, not permitted under GOTS 5.0
Any implied ecological benefit was debunked by analysis, carried out by Greenpeace Research laboratories at Exeter University, of these “plant-based” applicator tubes, finding them to be polyethylene which would very likely behave as all other polyethylene behaves in terms of its environmental persistence. Additionally, chemical residuals found on the tubes were of concern. This prompted me to contact GOTS late December 2017 advising them that I believed they had not given the environmental impact of this material any proper consideration and therefore, should review the standards to take account of the analysis and the environmental impact of the semi-rigid plastic applicators.
On the 3rd January, 2018 GOTS responded to my evidence with an action plan to look at having this debated and incorporated in the next revision of the Standard, at least three years away! While that may have disturbed the current situation, especially in markets where tampons were almost automatically sold with applicators, GOTS considered it as necessary based on the evidence. Version 6.0 made this clearer, and brands incorporating synthetic veils were given until March 2021 to remove them, and for brands with plastic applicators, these had to be removed by March 2022 otherwise these tampon brands would lose their GOTS certification.
For me, the integrity of organic agriculture and GOTS is critical to uphold the gold standard I have designed Natracare tampons to attain. The reactivity of the GOTS committee gave me faith in the independence and sincerity of their commitment to organic philosophy at the pointed end and were prepared to lose licensees not committed to making those changes.
If it’s itchy, then scratch it! You may find many claims are just superficial greenwashing. Be more cynical, ask lots of questions, choose GOTS certified products, and don’t buy unless, you’re sure. If we all do this, the greenwashers may have to step up their game.