x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Green Queen: Consumer scepticism is healthy

Just because a product is advertised as good for you, that doesn't mean it is.

We were driving towards Ras al Khaimah when a friend pointed out a billboard that made us laugh: a proclamation about "healthy" eating with a picture of fried chicken fingers as an example.

Companies around the world know we are waking up to healthier choices, not only for what we put into our bodies but also what we use in our homes. And while that brings an assortment of products that make it easier to live more consciously, it also means marketers and advertisers will try to act on the general population's willingness to try to do so. Let's face it: it can be difficult to know a phthalate from a phosphate when standing in a crowded supermarket aisle. When any entity misleads consumers about the environmental properties of a product or a programme, it is known as "greenwashing".

In 2007 the North American firm TerraChoice Environmental Marketing tested 1,018 products making 1,753 such claims and all but one was found to have been misleading in some way. The project prompted the firm to name "the six sins of greenwashing": those offering no proof of a claim; irrelevant claims; vague claims; hidden tradeoffs; "the lesser of the two evils" and outright lying.

The findings - and vast number of competing products - indicate we must take an active role in the products we bring into our homes.

Be inquisitive when a product is touted as "all-natural" or "non-toxic". Formaldehyde, for example, is natural, and even oxygen can be toxic in certain amounts. Look for some sort of certification, lots of explanation on labels or directions to a company's website for more information.

Get to know the elements you are trying to avoid and don't fool yourself into thinking a product that is inherently toxic (oven cleaner, insecticide) can ever really be green. Has a laundry detergent claimed it is energy efficient but slipped an artificial fragrance or a suspect sudsing agent in there? Is a product claiming to be recycled really 100 per cent so?

The last time I fell prey to greenwashing was several years ago. In an effort to avoid buying bottled water, I turned to the "eco-friendly" and trendy Sigg bottle. It turned out the plastic coating inside contained the controversial Bisphenol A, a hormone disrupter that can cause health problems. Several countries have declared it a toxic substance and banned it from products. In the face of growing consumer concern, the Swiss company changed the lining - and I learnt my lesson: no matter how much I want a product or how solid it seems, always maintain a healthy scepticism of claims made by those who have something to gain.

amcqueen@thenational.ae