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How To Spot ‘Cleanwashing,’ Marketing That Makes Beauty Products Seem Greener and Healthier Than They Are

Jaleh Bisharat

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If you’re a consumer, you’re more powerful than ever.

With so many independent brands springing up, and with increasing transparency online, you’re empowered to choose products from companies that share your values. You can decide to only buy cosmetics from companies that don’t test on animals, for example, or to support local businesses by shopping at your neighborhood farmers’ market. 

When companies respond to your values by creating products that are good for your health and the environment, it’s a wonderful thing. But sometimes, it’s tough to separate genuine brands from those that are marketing themselves that way to exploit a consumer trend.

At NakedPoppy, the clean beauty startup I co-founded, we call this tactic “cleanwashing.” It’s based on the concept of “greenwashing,” a term coined in 1986 when environmentalist Jay Westerveld noticed hotels asking guests to reuse bath towels to help the environment—while in reality they wanted to save money on laundry costs and were doing little else to save the Earth. 

Unfortunately, the market is filled with brands that want your health and environmentally-conscious dollars—but don’t live up to the standards they imply. 

For example, in 2017, Walmart paid $1 million to settle a claim that its plastic products labeled “biodegradable” and “compostable” violated a California state law that makes it illegal for plastic products to be labeled “biodegradable” unless the brand explains how long it will take to break down on the label. And, in 2011, Fiji Water was sued over its claims that it was “carbon-negative,” when the company won’t actually get there until 2037. 

As clean beauty gains popularity with health-conscious consumers, cleanwashing is in full swing. This is why it’s important to know what to look out for. 

One example of cleanwashing involves misleading imagery. Some companies use “green” images on their packaging—flowers or leaves, for example— to imply that they’re “natural” when they’re not. 

Other companies create “no lists,” some with better intentions than others. “No lists” often include parabens, phthalates, formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers, BHA, no this, no that—but there are more than 12,500 unique chemical ingredients in personal care products. Of those 12,500, there are known or suspected carcinogens, reproductive toxins, and endocrine disruptors among them. So a “no list” featuring 15 or even 50 chemicals isn’t all that reassuring. The substitutes can, sometimes inadvertently, be just as bad as the ingredients they avoid. 

With little government regulation of personal care products, you’re relying on brands to act in your best interest. There’s no standard definition of “natural” or “ clean,” and the term “organic” applies to food but is not helpful when it comes to makeup. This is because organic, food-grade ingredients don’t guarantee makeup safety and can’t ensure performance by themselves. Take clean liquid eyeliner as an example. No food ingredients are going to allow you to draw a sharp, jet black line, and safe, vetted preservatives are absolutely necessary to protect your eyes. 

At NakedPoppy, our definition of “clean beauty” is based on four core commitments: 

  1. Your health. Every ingredient in each product we carry is evaluated for any negative health effects. 
  2. Environmental health. Minimizing environmental impact is a top priority. 
  3. Animal welfare. All of our products are cruelty-free. 
  4. Community and social health. Fair labor practices, worker safety, and community outreach are important to us—we seek partners with positive values.  

Here are some things to look out for when evaluating whether a company is clean:

  1. Does the company publish their standards? That way, you can see if your values align and you can hold them accountable if they get off track.
  1. Are they clean at their roots? Every company has its DNA. Those born of a commitment to clean products are often coming from a more rigorous, dedicated place.
  1. Do they invest in the scientific resources necessary to vet properly? It’s tough to vet clean products without scientific review and having trained scientists stay on top of the latest research. 
  1. Do they do the right thing, even when it’s difficult? At my company, NakedPoppy, our scientist noticed that one of our best-selling products contained Japanese honeysuckle, an ingredient that might be an endocrine disruptor. So we took it off the shelves. The decision put us at a disadvantage while other retailers continued to carry it. But there was no debate—customer health comes first. Luckily, the brand re-reformulated without Japanese honeysuckle and the product is back on our website. 
  1. Are they constantly learning and open to feedback? NakedPoppy recently received an email from a woman who noticed an inaccurate statement in one of our blog posts. Here’s her message and our response: 

“I just read your blog post “ABCs of BHA and BHT” and saw the statement “Both BHA and BHT are banned for use in cosmetics in the EU.” Could you provide a reference for this statement? I cannot find either chemical on Annex II (prohibited) nor on Annex III (restricted) of the EU Cosmetics Directive. Looking forward to an explanation.”

“I can’t thank you enough for bringing this to our attention. We have our scientists vet what we write, but obviously we’re human and can make mistakes. As soon as your email came in, we looked into it and you’re right. BHA/BHT are not yet banned or restricted from a regulatory standpoint—they’re merely on the European Commission’s list of suspected endocrine disruptors, the Prop 65 list, and the Substitute It Now list. We will make the adjustment to our post right away and appreciate you so much for bringing this to our attention.”

Even the best clean beauty companies aren’t perfect. Science is a long way from understanding the health and environmental impacts of every chemical, plus the ways they change and interact with each other during the manufacturing process. 

It’s precisely because of these shortcomings, and the fact that the beauty industry is so lightly regulated, that you should seek out companies with a genuine commitment to clean products. These brands won’t be perfect, but clean beauty will be their core commitment and clearly defined. They’ll also be seriously invested in science and demonstrate their commitment to doing the right thing.

Co-founder/CEO at NakedPoppy, a clean beauty startup. Former CMO/VP Marketing at OpenTable, Amazon, Upwork, Eventbrite. Follow Jaleh on Medium: https://medium.com/@jalehbisharat

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