Madeleine (Maddie) Perry
You’ve heard of greenwashing…now let’s talk about cleanwashing
Explaining parallels between the terms ‘green’ and ‘clean’ in the context of misleading marketing.
What is cleanwashing?
Most people who engage with the topic of sustainability in their daily lives are well aware of the concept of greenwashing, a.k.a. the tactic of using corporate behaviours and activities to lead consumers into believing a company is acting more sustainable than shown by any evidence. However, cleanwashing might be new to those outside the beauty and healthcare domains, as it’s with products in these markets that the term is seen most frequently.
As we grow increasingly conscious of not only what we release into the environment, but also what we consume and absorb through our skin, large corporations have cottoned onto the fact that labelling products ‘free from [X]’ presents them in a more appealing way to customers who consider themselves wary of environmental and health problems associated (rightly or wrongly) with certain substances. The more exclusions in a product, the ‘purer’ it must be, right? Not necessarily…
Expanding into this target market of conscious consumers can only have a positive effect on sales, so it is something that is definitely on the rise. ‘Cleanwashing’ describes the tactics used by a company that might lead a consumer into believing a product is more beneficial in health terms (or conversely less harmful) than a competitor’s due to its ingredients and their origins. This can be direct, e.g. labelling specifying the percentage of organic ingredients or those of natural origin in the product, or more subtle, in terms of the vocabulary used to describe it in general. Some common clean beauty buzzwords are ‘pure’, ‘unrefined’, ‘natural’, ‘skin-friendly’, and even ‘chemical-free’...which, to be pedantic, isn’t really possible, unless you are literally selling nothing.
How does it relate to greenwashing?
Just as big brands use keywords like ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘green’ in their advertising to signal their supposed dedication to environmental causes, they do the same to project an image of ‘cleanliness’ of their product with cleanwashing. Often, the cultural concepts associated with these words overlap and are quite hard to distinguish from one another, meaning that where you find one, you’ll likely find the other. Some brands have hijacked the sense of consumer trust created by declaring a product ‘green’ and extended this idea of being respectful to nature to human health.
Just to be clear, it is only the unsubstantiated and misleading nature of some of these product claims that this post concerns; we definitely don’t want to bash the efforts of the brands that are really willing to listen to consumers’ concerns about the environmental and health impacts of the products they use! However, preying on customers’ worries and leading them to avoid substances that are neither toxic nor environmentally problematic is an issue, as people might feel forced into buying more expensive items with this misleading labelling at a time when the rising cost of living is hitting everyone. Therefore, it’s good to know how to look out for this phenomenon.
How to spot cleanwashing
There are some aspects of a brand’s packaging that leap out as potential evidence of cleanwashing tactics. First and foremost, there are the long so-called ‘no-lists’ or ‘free-from lists’. You might see something labelled with so many ingredient omissions that you might start to wonder what it actually contains. Just because a product doesn’t contain a certain substance, it doesn’t automatically make it more or less ‘clean’ than another, as ‘clean’ is a subjective concept. Some brands use it to refer to products that don’t contain any synthetic substances, whereas others might deem things like mineral oil and other fossil fuel derivatives to be ‘dirty’. It’s worth having a proper look at these lists and what they mean in practice - what does the brand itself consider to be ‘clean’, and does it align with your product preferences? Beware of the ‘appeal to nature’ fallacy in which things are claimed to be good if they’re natural, or bad if they’re unnatural. A synthetic substance created in a lab might be more tightly regulated in terms of purity or less resource-intensive to collect than its natural counterpart, for example. ‘Certified organic’ might not mean anything at all if a substance is typically obtained without the use of pesticides anyway.
Another obvious ploy is the use of imagery invoking themes of nature, plants, and water etc. Whilst this is ubiquitous, if a brand is relying heavily on illustrations of leaves or a blue and green colour scheme without actually explaining what makes the product ‘clean’, it might be a sign of cleanwashing and something to investigate for yourself.
Lastly, it’s recommended that you check the small print on any product packaging. Many ‘free-from’ and ‘certified’ labels come with certain caveats, so it might be the case that whilst your moisturiser pot claims to contain up to 50% organic ingredients, the other 50% could be something as highly unsustainable as irresponsibly-sourced palm oil. It’s never easy staying one step ahead of misleading advertising, but taking the time to become more informed about the ingredients of products we use on a daily basis is just one small part of everyone’s journey to leading a more sustainable and healthy life.