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Are Eco-Friendly Products Really Eco-Friendly? Here Are Some Ways to Tell

Rachel Lark - March 3, 2024

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Although eco-friendly products were once relatively niche items, they’ve hit the mainstream. People have plenty of options, whether shopping for toothbrushes or clothing. However, it’s not always easy to trace product origins. Are eco-friendly products really eco-friendly? Although there’s no universal answer, people can make better judgments by exercising some critical thinking. 

Look Beyond a Company’s Claims

Start by learning what outside sources say about a company’s eco-friendly products. Growing evidence suggests many consumers prefer such options, and some will pay more for them. That means some company decision-makers may try to seize the opportunity to make money. 

However, there’s no guarantee they’ll take the required steps to make those products actually good for the planet. That means people should not use brand websites as their only sources when gathering information. They can start there but should see if external sources validate the company’s promises. 

Reporters accused clothing retailer H&M of deceptive practices related to environmental scorecards the company provided for some of its items. An investigation showed more than 50% of the scorecards had inaccurate information. Some gave scores wholly opposite to the reality, raising concerns about corporate untruths. 

Treat that example as a strong reminder of the reality: Are eco-friendly products really eco-friendly? The companies behind them aren’t always honest, so people must look deeper to find out. 

See If the Company Encourages Consumption

All companies — even those selling eco-friendly products — encourage consumers to buy things, right? Not necessarily. Outdoor clothing brand Patagonia is an excellent example. It provides free repair tutorials. People not ready to take that step can opt for a complimentary fixing service. It also publishes online content urging people to consider repairing their items rather than replacing them. 

The same is true with Fairphone, a small smartphone company that provides the tools, spare parts and instructions for consumers to fix their phones rather than buy new ones when things break. Sometimes, the company runs promotions where people can get free earbuds with their purchases of new phones. However, messaging on Fairphone’s website asks people to consider if they genuinely need more earbuds or could do without them. 

Are eco-friendly products really eco-friendly if the companies selling them discourage unnecessary consumption? Although people should examine other indicators, this one highlights some of a company’s values. 

Check for External Certifications

Rainforest Alliance, LEED, Fair Trade USA and Cradle To Cradle Certified are some of the many certifications products can receive to indicate they meet certain eco-friendly standards. 

Rather than just seeing a product’s certification on its packaging and deciding it’s suitably eco-friendly, people should take the time to learn what a certification requires. Does it match some of the things they deem most important about living sustainably? If so, that’s a solid reason to buy it. 

After all, products can’t check every eco-friendly box. However, an ideal way forward is to prioritize buying some things that most match the purchaser’s environmental values. 

It’s also handy that many of the websites associated with the certifications list which companies have received them. Consider that Burt’s Bees received Leaping Bunny certification in 2008. So, that personal care brand has committed to a manufacturing process without animal cruelty at any stage. 

There are plenty of other highly specific certifications, too. For example, the Forest Stewardship Council relates to responsible usage and management of the world’s forests. There’s also Green Seal, which sets certification criteria related to performance, sustainability and health.

Learning about what each certification requires also helps people find the products that are most worth buying depending on their eco-friendliness goals. This approach is similarly practical when people want to gradually switch from non-eco-friendly products to ones that are better for the planet. 

Learn About a Company’s History

Another way to figure out if eco-friendly products are really eco-friendly is to find out as much as possible about whether a commitment to the planet factored into someone’s decision to start a business. Sometimes, people look for eco-friendly products and find the market lacks what they need. Then, they fill the gap by launching a company.

Such was the case with a woman from a large family who has always loved a good party. After looking at the current offerings, she found a significant gap in the market. Even the items with eco-friendly claims were not actually helping the planet, she discovered. She decided to change things by starting a company featuring better options. Some of them are handmade wood creations, so they should last much longer than things made of plastic. 

Although this is not true for every eco-friendly product and business, people should look into its history and see if a commitment to the planet influenced the company owner. When a big part of an entrepreneur’s drive is to help the Earth as they run their businesses, that’s often a good sign their products will be genuinely eco-friendly. 

One reason is that business owners often have problem-solving mindsets. They come up with ideas by thinking, “Why doesn’t this exist yet?” From there, many eventually realized they could address the issue through products made by their businesses.  

Others aren’t content with buying eco-friendly products. They want to do even more by producing them and bringing them to the market for like-minded people to enjoy. 

Think of How the Eco-Friendly Products Will Affect Life

Despite an increasing number of eco-friendly products on the market, many people still feel discouraged about their overall impacts. For example, one 2023 study indicated 45% of respondents said their actions contributed to climate change during the year. However, 64% tried to help the environment with their decisions. 

One of the ways to be mindful of the planet when reaching conclusions is to think about how often a product will get used after purchase and how much it would impact overall life. Are eco-friendly products really eco-friendly if people only use them a few times? In that case, the lack of ongoing use from the purchaser could negate some of the planet-positive effects. 

However, when people get specific about why they want eco-friendly products and consider how they’ll improve their lives, it’s easier to get into routines where these items are essential to daily life. Some products not explicitly marketed as eco-friendly can become such if people take good care of them. 

People can start by asking themselves how their lives would get better if they bought eco-friendly products and committed to daily or regular use. Could they count on the items to last longer? If the products are durable enough, people might even pass them on to friends once they no longer need or want them. 

Eco-friendly goods can also significantly cut down on household waste. That outcome can help people save money, particularly if they must pay garbage disposal fees to local companies. The main thing to remember is that whether an eco-friendly product fulfills that claim partially depends on how often people use it and if they take care of it well. 

Are Eco-Friendly Products Really Eco-Friendly? Sometimes

Unfortunately, people can’t trust that products are really eco-friendly if their packaging or websites promise that. Things are not always so clear-cut and truthful. However, the strategies above will help shoppers scrutinize and evaluate goods before deciding to buy them. 

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About the author

Rachel Lark

Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of Environment.co. A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.