Peeling back misleading green labels

The number of products making green claims increased by almost 75 per cent since 2009, but 95 per cent were guilty of greenwashing, either by making claims that were vague, irrelevant, unproven or just patently false.

Why government needs to police those 'green' claims

Many consumer products that bear green labels have suspect science to back up their claims (CBC)

Pssst … wanna buy an ingredient linked to cancer for your skin? How ‘bout a hormone disruptor? An environmental toxin? Then go buy some "green" shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers — there’s a good chance you’ll strike gold.

Turns out, it’s good business for companies to overstate their green virtues. Two thirds of Canadians buy natural products — paying more for items they think are healthier and more environmentally responsible. But are we really getting what we pay for?

Not according to the environmental marketing company Terrachoice. It found that not only have the number of products making green claims increased by almost 75 per cent since 2009, but 95 per cent were guilty of greenwashing, either by making claims that were vague, irrelevant, unproven or just patently false.

Erica Johnson is the co-host of Marketplace, CBC Television's award-winning prime-time investigative consumer show.

Johnson began her journalism career in radio in 1987, working at several private radio stations. She began her CBC career in 1990 as a radio news reporter. Johnson joined the Marketplace team as a Vancouver-based reporter, eventually becoming the Vancouver co-host of the program.

At Marketplace, we discovered, that there is no definition for these claims when it comes to the products that we use everyday — shampoos, lotions, cosmetics, and baby care items. The words "natural" and "organic" have the sheen of science, but not the standard. In fact, they’re not much more than marketing terms.

We bought so-called "natural" and "organic" products at drug stores and health food stores in Toronto, and found products laced with ingredients commonly contaminated with carcinogens, hormone disruptors, a chemical linked to global warming, and environmental pollutants.

Health Canada says all personal care products for sale are safe, because possible contaminants are at low levels.  That may be, but people still want choice.

With virtually no rules, companies get to define these terms themselves. And that means that they can bend the terms to fit their product, not the other way around. Many companies merely add a couple of ingredients — a few drops of essential oil here, a dab of aloe there — to otherwise conventional formulas. That’s enough for some companies to slap "natural" on the label (with a nice green leaf for effect).

So what should a natural standard look like? Well, according to the Natural Products Association, it should indicate a formula that’s made mostly of ingredients derived from plants, animals and minerals, with minimal processing. Some essential oils, for example, can be extracted with harsh industrial solvents that can leave their own chemical residue and environmental footprint.

Ideally, argues the NPA, this processing should be limited to "kitchen chemistry" — something you could do with simple processes like heat, time and pressure, which ensure that the ingredients remain pure.

Watch LOUSY LABELS on Friday, March 18 on Marketplace for our Top 10 list of misleading labels. 8 p.m. ET on local CBC stations, or click here to watch the show online.

When it comes to "organic" products, advocates like the Organic Consumers Association say that products should contain a minimum percentage of organic content. To get the USDA seal, a product has to be 95 per cent organic. And that remaining five per cent? It can’t include parabens, toxins, petrochemicals, the list goes on.

But, sadly, most of the "natural" or "organic" products out there don’t meet these rigorous standards. Some do opt for pricey certification, but most employ some clever tricks in lieu of actually reformulating their products.

Some companies try to make their ingredients appear more natural or organic than they are. One common tactic is to use hydrosols or "flower waters" in a formula. Hydrosols are made when water is steeped or steamed with a natural ingredient and that liquid is added to the product.

Sounds nice, but with no minimum amount of the natural ingredient that formulators are required to use, it may be a very weak tea. Throw a slice of lemon in a swimming pool and suddenly you’ve got natural "citrus water." And when formulators use this water in their products — in place of the water they were already going to add — it gives the appearance of a lot of organic or natural content, often near the top of the ingredient list. In reality, it may be mostly water.

"Fragrance" or "parfum" is another loophole — a catch-all phrase that might be hiding hundreds of ingredients that you don’t want to buy, notably phthalates, used to make scents linger. Fragrance is considered a trade secret: companies don’t have to tell you exactly what makes your shampoo smell like honey and pear (and there may very well be no honey or pear doing the heavy lifting).

Still others indicate that some ingredients are "naturally-derived" when they are, for all intents and purposes, synthetic. A chemical like PEG-7 glyceryl cocoate may have some origin in natural ingredients — in this case, coconut oil — but it is so heavily processed, that its link to the natural world is tenuous at best.

Third party-certifiers, such as the Natural Products Association, would not allow this ingredient in a certified natural product. But uncertified products? They can not only contain it, but point to it as proof of naturalness.

No regulator

Which is why people are rightly feeling ripped off. We’re expected to have a PhD in chemistry just to buy shampoo. When we talked to the Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, an industry lobby group, president Darren Praznik told us this again and again: If you’re concerned, read the label. And if you — like most of us — can’t understand it, you should ask the companies for clarification.

But no accountability also means that there’s no incentive for companies to be transparent. When we called to ask companies to back up their overt natural claims and reveal how much of their product is natural or organic, they told us that information was deemed proprietary.

What they were proud to trumpet on the label, in their brand name, and in their commercials was suddenly too much of a trade secret to prove.  "We are natural", they proclaim, "but we can’t tell you how much."

It’s the Competition Bureau’s mandate to police misleading labelling, but so far, there has been no action to limit the amount of greenwashing around us. In 2008, to some fanfare, the bureau released guidelines designed to help companies avoid making misleading environmental claims.

But the key word there is guidelines — they’re purely voluntary. The bureau refused to tell us if there has been any action since then, and refused to talk to us on camera.

The Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association told us it’s working on developing international standards for the words "organic" and "natural." But even those would be voluntary.

So for now, it’s status quo: companies are going to keep greenwashing.  And Canadians are going to continue to get greengouged.