Earlier this year when we were discussing the relationship between millennials and consumerism, we introduced a new term to our Postconsumers Glossary. The term was Ethical Consumerism and it had to do with making purchases but making them in a way that supported your philosophical and moral beliefs. (We know that some postconsumers resist crafting identity based on purchases, but as we previously explained we feel like ethical consumerism is a great spot to live in on the consumer scale as long as it includes “enough”). If you’re not familiar with the concept of ethical consumerism, it might be worth it to read up before delving deeper into this post, but we think you’ll get the point of what we’re saying regardless.

Are you an ethical consumer?

Of course, Ethical Consumerism is just one of the terms that you’ll need to understand for this article. The second is Greenwashing. Per our very own glossary definition, Greenwashing is the act of marketing a product or organization as being environmentally or eco-friendly by selectively presenting information in a way that supports such claims when, in fact, other practices of the company or product are harmful to the planet. Essentially, it’s tricking you into thinking that you’re being an ethical consumer by only giving you part of the story. We’ve covered it in even more detail in this article.

So, to sum up: being an ethical consumer can be a great thing but falling for greenwashing practices is not a great thing. That’s all … cool! But then the real question presents itself: How do you tell the difference? While we can’t give you a perfect checklist to ensure you’ll always be right, we do have some tips for trying to sort out the difference between being an ethical consumer and falling into a greenwashing trap.

The Most Basic Rule: If It Seems Too Good To Be True, It Probably Is

This is one of those classic sayings that we truly wish we’d listened to the first hundred times people said it to us, in greenwashing and in life! Wisdom rarely favors the young, however. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be an exception to that rule, though (because all Postconsumers are, at a minimum, young at heart). A product that makes a claim to be 100% earth-friendly with only socially-conscious manufacturing and also gives a donation to four different causes when you purchase it is likely masking something.  Please just always remember – things that seem too good to be true probably are.

Don’t Make the Location of the Purchase the Deciding Factor

Glossary Definition: Greenwashing

We certainly aren’t going to tell you that it’s ever truly in your best interest to embrace shopping at big box stores. However, we also don’t want you to think that just because something came from a big box store it’s bad and just because something came from a farmer’s market it’s good. In fact, if you take out ethical concerns about volume and how the big box store is run, you can purchase some truly eco-friendly products at big box stores. Target, for example, has a wide selection of organic produce. And there are some ways in which buying ethical products at big box stores benefit you. Big box stores and chains monitor the products they merchandise, so your chance of being duped into thinking something is “green” when it’s actually not are reduced. On the flip side, there’s plenty of documentation about how farmer’s markets and local operations can present food in particular as organic when it’s not. Obviously, research is key. But what we’re warning you against is just assuming that the location drives the reality of whether a product is ethical or greenwashed.

Speaking of Research …

We’re always advocating this! We certainly understand that every purchase can’t come with a full online search, interviews of existing customers and a detailed lab testing for accuracy. But there are some fast, tried and true ways to quickly find out if you’re being overtly greenwashed (or any other type of misrepresentation about the ethicalness of the product). We’re big fans of the Buycott app. It’s mobile (obviously), easy-to-use, generally reasonably up-to-date and takes only seconds to scan and analyze the social and environmental imprint of the product or brand you’re considering. It only helps you with brands large enough to have a national presence in most cases, but it’s a great starting point.

We’re also of the belief that one of the biggest areas of greenwashing marketing is the cosmetics, beauty and personal health industry. That makes us huge fans of the Environmental Working Group and their massive database and ongoing research. You can search over 64,000 products in their database and confirm or deny if they meet your ethical standards.

Just Always Remember that Marketing Is Just That … Marketing

This of course is always the rule to live by. Marketing doesn’t have to be evil, but it’s still marketing. It’s designed to make you want to purchase something. The same rules apply when you’re talking about ethical purchasing as when you’re just purchasing. Don’t buy a product of course just because a marketer has told you to. Think critically about reality, the limits of ethical production and whether or not you even truly need or want a product before you purchase it.  All the ethical choices in the world about what you purchase may not be able to deflate the impact of how much you purchase.

Watching out for greenwashing and embracing the concept of ethical consumerism can improve not only your overall satisfaction and joy in life but also the health of the planet. Just be sure not to get carried away in the bright colors of a marketing campaign as you make the switch and remember that identity goes much deeper than stuff!

Have a contrasting take on the difference between greenwashing and ethical consumerism? Tell us about it on the social media channels below.

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Photo Credit: Beth via Flickr