The Most Common Greenwashing Terms
On the first day of the new year, some of us may have been nursing hangovers and others may have settled in for a zen-like meditation session to start the year off on astrong, solid foundation. At Finch, we took a restorative break during the holidays and spent the time prepping for the annual New Year's Dishonor List Day. Sound like a joke? Nope, it's a real thing...and it's quite a mouthful.
WHAT IS NEW YEAR'S DISHONOR LIST DAY?
In 1977, the Public Relations department at Lake Superior State University in Marie, Michigan started something as a publicity stunt that has turned into quite the cathartic annual tradition. Each year, they collect nominations for the most overused, useless, and redundant words and phrases that should be banished from the English language and then publish a list of those 'banished' words. Our favorites from this year? 'Supply chain' and 'circle back'. Let's not do a 'deep dive' on why we can't stand these phrases.
According to their website, people across the U.S. and around the world have nominated tens of thousands of words and phrases for banishment over the past few decades. Some highlights from last year include 'COVID-19,', 'we're all in this together', "in an abundance of caution", and "in these uncertain times.' Just writing them gives us some scary flashbacks to the emails we were getting in March 2020...and have started getting again. Thanks, Omicron.
Let's start by saying: We're not fans of censorship.
That said, we do believe that some words and phrases just aren't worth using, especially when it comes to sustainability. Much of the language being used to describe sustainability in the mainstream is at best, meaningless, and at worst, manipulative. In fact, the creative team at Radley Yeldar has started to call these mainstream marketing habits 'Stock Sustainability', meaning they are equivalent to those hilariously bad stock photos that get used in ways they probably shouldn't be used.
While we wouldn't mind seeing 'unprecedented' added to the Banished Word List, we've also carved out a special place in our hearts for these overused, now useless, stock sustainability words.
Since we know it's unlikely that we'll get enough votes for our nominations, we've decided to instead play an active role in reclaiming what these terms mean. It's time to honor the science that's been dishonored by the misuse of these common colloquialisms.
HOW SHOULD THESE WORDS REALLY BE DEFINED?
Listed below are our definitions of some of the most common words used in the world of sustainability.
Eco-friendly is technicallydefined as ânot harmful to the environment,' but this is an impossible standard for a product to meet.
Here's why: let's break the term down by first defining 'eco', and then 'friendly.' 'Eco'stands for ecology, which is the study of ecosystems, or the often delicate and intricate interrelationship of organisms and their environments. 'Friendly'means something shows kindly interest and goodwill, serves a beneficial or helpful purpose, and does not cause harm.
When we put these together, for a product to be eco-friendly, it would need to not only cause no harm to ecosystems, but also be beneficial to these delicate and intricate systems - which encompass almost everything when it comes to the planet, from biodiversity, to deforestation, to water use, to wildlife health.
Is it regulated?Nope, and oftentimes when words aren't regulated, they're not credible.
Does Finch use it?Absolutely not!
Want a memory trick? Most of the time, the use of âeco-friendly' is beneficial to companies... but not to ecosystems.
In most contexts, when a product claims it is âgreen', it's likely trying to sell you on the notion that it is not harmful to the environment. No product can be truly âsustainable' and claims of a product being âgreen' can be misleading unless they're referencing the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry (aka: science). From how a product is created to how it's disposed, we can reduce impact, but no product (or chemical) is entirely âgreen'.
Is it regulated?Nope.
Does Finch use it?Only when applying the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry or when talking about, you know, the color.
Want a memory trick? To have a green thumb, a product has to be backed by science, not marketing.
âNatural' is defined as 'existing in nature and not made or caused by people' by the reliable Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Seems easy enough, right? Well, existing in nature is not mutually inclusive with being safe for humans or good for the planet. For example, rattlesnake poison and the botulism toxin, along with thousands of types of bacteria that exist in nature can be very harmful to people and can be invasive to natural habitats, ecosystems, and various planetary systems.
Is it regulated? Nope, and oftentimes when words aren't regulated, they're not credible.
Does Finch use it? Nay.
Want a memory trick?Go au naturale when it comes to 'natural' labels.
To be honest, ânon-toxic' doesn't actually mean much of anything. In fact, no chemical or material is purely 'non-toxic'. Instead of saying 'non-toxic', scientists will determine whether something is NOAEL (aka it has âNo Observed Adverse Effect Level'). The NOAEL is the highest amount of a chemical an organism can be exposed to before it begins showing some sort of toxic response, like getting sick or developing a rash.
Is it regulated? Nope.
Does Finch use it? Never.
Want a memory trick?Think about ânon-toxic' bug spray and remember that everything can be toxic at a high enough dose.
While many people claim things are âwaste-free' or âzero waste', there's only one internationally-recognized and peer-reviewed definition here and it's from the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA). ZWIA defines âzero waste' as 'the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.'
Is it regulated? Not really, but there is an internationally-recognized, peer-reviewed definition for âzero waste'.
Does Finch use it?Only once we've considered all steps in the product's life cycle and when we're referring to the ZWIA definition.
Want a memory trick?Eliminating the idea of waste all together is a real challenge, so the global standard to be certified as âzero waste' is actually 90% diversion from landfill (aka there's still some waste, even when something is zero waste...).
And, of course, the grand champion of stock sustainability...
For something to be 'sustainable', it must balance how it meets human needs with its ability to continue to do so for the foreseeable future, without degrading the natural environment.
Is it regulated? Nope.
Does Finch use it?Only to refer to specific processes or components.
Want a memory trick? Try thinking about the 3 âE's. AKA the UN's three main pillars of sustainability: Environmental protection, social Equality, and Economic growth.
Wonder why some brands still talk about how natural, eco-friendly, and green products are, and why we never will? Enter: our Glossary of Sustainability.
We'll continue to add to this list, so stay tuned for more science-backed definitions to help you learn about which terms are unregulated, what words actually mean, and what you can do to avoid greenwashing or falling for clever marketing schemes.
Happy New year's Dishonor List Day, everyone! What's going on your personal list of Misuse, Overuse, and General Uselessness?