You’ve surely heard of whitewashing, where you paint walls white by barely doing any work. Greenwashing is a similar concept. The difference is that instead of “pretending” to paint, it’s pretending to be a green product. This happens in a few different ways and can include everything from simple marketing techniques to what the actual certifications mean.

Basically, greenwashing is a company’s way of tricking people into thinking the products they are buying are more environmentally friendly than they really are. Most people aren’t surprised that companies are trying to trick them, but environmentalism is perceived with a sort of sacredness. It might be pretty disappointing to learn just how little some terms mean and how companies take advantage of them. Let’s investigate!

Understanding Terms

Organic, natural, grass-fed, cage free — They all sound awesome, right? Many of them don’t actually mean what you’re made to think they mean, though. Take cage free, for example. It gives the impression that chickens are running around in open fields, grazing on grass and bugs and living happily. However, the reality is quite the opposite — most of those chickens never see the sun. When one bird dies, there are so many crammed into one storehouse that it will simply be trampled until the place is emptied.

Organic is another term that doesn’t mean what the marketing machine claims. According to the USDA, organic farmers are supposed to adhere to specific guidelines, including providing animal access to the outdoors, preserving natural biodiversity and keeping organic food separate from traditional varieties.

The problem is with only yearly inspections, there’s an awful lot of room for manipulation. Animals are to be given access to outside, of course, but nothing says for how long they need to go out, or how often. It would be entirely possible for animals to be kept indoors for days at a time and only be let out for brief periods on occasion.

This is not to imply that all farmers do things like that, either. It’s only an example of how simple it is to manipulate the system.

Understanding Sustainability

What does sustainable mean? According to the USDA and FDA, nothing. There is no regulation on what is and is not considered sustainable. Similar issues arise with grass-fed and natural. There is nothing to determine what it means.

Packaging is actually a big proponent in cases like this. For instance, buying meat that has a big picture of a farm and labels like “grass-fed” and “all natural” doesn’t mean anything. But if the labels are printed in green, consumers are more likely to buy the product because they assume it’s more environmentally friendly. Ever notice how many products that claim to be natural have green packaging? It makes consumers feel safe, calm and that they’re buying something good.

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The Effects

Overall, this leads to a pretty solid disintegration of the trust between consumers and companies. Unfortunately, it also brings down the whole idea of natural and organic. When this movement began, it was designed to create better options and a healthier world.

The goals were lofty, though, and companies were able to take those goals and strip them down to look pretty but have little substance. Additionally, some of the results have actually turned out to be harmful in practice, and others are simply downright misleading.

This creates a sort of weird mix. Consumers get confused about what labels matter on products and what doesn’t. Look at the battle of GMO (genetically modified organism) labeling, for instance. People are crusading for GMO-labeling, without realizing that it can increase prices and decrease food competition. The first example of this can be seen in Vermont, where 3,000 products are being stripped off the shelves.

This might not matter for people who can already afford the higher-priced organic options, but for those who can’t, losing those traditional products only increases the distance between classes. Organic means more than genetic engineering, but that’s the aspect companies have decided to focus on.

The bottom line here is that fancy packaging and hopeful words don’t make a product better. It might make you feel better — and make you feel like you’ve made a good purchase.

If you’re happy to pay more for that feeling, then you absolutely should. However, the words and the packages don’t make for a better or healthier product. Understand what terms are regulated and what those regulations mean. Being informed is really the only protection.