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Greenwashing, what it is and how to spot it

When it comes to cosmetics there is very little regulation of terms like natural and organic – here’s how to decipher if your product is truly green

Cruelty-free, ocean-friendly and sustainable – just some of the buzzwords that are frequently splashed across an increasing number of beauty products. It makes us feel better, after all we can continue to use our favourite skincare, safe in the knowledge that the companies behind them are doing enough to protect the planet.

But is this really the case? Not quite. It seems that rather than making real change, companies are guilty of employing clever marketing spin to make us believe a product is more environmentally-friendly than it is – aka greenwashing.

What is greenwashing? 

Coined in the early 80s, greenwashing is when companies attempt to appear as if they have better environmentally aware credentials than they actually do.

But why? “The ethical consumer is on the rise,” says Lora Nikolaeva Gene, Co-Founder of boutique skincare brand Gene In A Bottle, and Sustainability Lead mentor at Oxford University. “People are becoming educated and aware of the environmental issues and they are pressing companies to be more responsible in their operations.”

And the stats definitely back this up. The global market value for natural and organic cosmetics and personal care for 2027 is projected to be worth an astounding $54.5 billion dollars* (approximately £40.1 billion).

Meanwhile, 52 per cent of consumers worldwide would prioritise natural, organic, vegan and sustainable options when making a purchase, meaning that green consumerism is on the up and here to stay.

“All of this then impacts a company's performance and so businesses are pressured to respond to that pressure,” says Gene. And while implementing long-lasting chance takes time (potentially hurting profit margins in the process), the quickest answer is clever labelling.

“The issue is that is that neither ‘natural’ nor ‘organic’ are legally protected terms when it comes to beauty products,” explains Sophie Nixon from the Soil Association. “It is illegal to market food and drink products as organic unless they have been certified to contain at least 95 per cent organic ingredients. But there is no such regulation for beauty products.”

This means a brand could only have one organic ingredient and still label their product as such.

How to avoid it 

“Only those with a certification logo can give shoppers true confidence that the claims on the label are correct,” says Nixon.

Indeed, certification bodies like the Soil Association Certification or COSMOS, require strict organic or natural standards to be met before awarding their seal of approval.

Another logo to look out for is the Leaping Bunny, which certifies that the product is also animal-cruelty free.

But that’s not all. “Research,” says Gene. Not only is it easier than ever to investigate ingredients (the Soil Association has a detailed list that is updated periodically), but Gene also recommends looking at the people involved in the make of the product.

She says: “Even if you have the most environmentally-friendly product, but it’s made by exploitation of human labour, then there is no sustainability in that business.”

Finally, what about greenwashing in aesthetics?! Gene isn’t convinced. “Aesthetic work is specific and very much regulated like medicine. Plus, the consumer is different as a profile and there is no need to greenwash them.”


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