Caution: Greenwashing Ahead

As the local and green movements began to pick up steam a few years ago, “greenwashing” naturally evolved. Greenwashing is a technique used by PR moguls in order to promote their business as environmentally friendly, sometimes rightly so… others not so much.

The words below can be seen a lot nowadays in order to describe products. While some of the words below ring true for some products, many brands misuse the words in order to sway us into buying their product. Before you go out on your next shopping excursion, make sure you keep in mind the true meaning to the terms below.

Green  – concerned with or supporting environmentalism.

While this word may have meant something at the start of this movement, it has lost some of its allure and has become quite vague, as demonstrated by the definition above. The vague definition allows companies and brands to use it at their discretion in order to manipulate the consumer (us!) into buying their not-so-green products. Today, when products or brands are labeling themselves as green it’s important to ask some follow up questions – a big one being how?

Sustainable – of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged

Like “green,” a lot of companies use this word loosely and can be used to describe many things, such as recycling programs, energy efficiency, farming methods, etc. While these are valid definitions, it’s important to compare your definition of sustainable to a company’s definition of sustainable.

Local – of, relating to, or characteristic of a particular place : not general or widespread

“Local” is the most ambiguous greenwashing term these days because everyone has a different idea on what is local. Local is also up for debate because it depends on what you compare it to. For example, California olives could be seen as “local” when compared to Italian or Greek olives. The Co-op defines local as 150 miles. Period. Other natural, organic stores define local as 300 miles + and conventional grocery stores define local as even further. Like the word sustainable, ask yourself what your definition of local is and how it compares to the product you are about to buy.

Cage free – not raised in a cage

This phrase needs to be taken as literal as possible. Pretend you were a five year old and someone asked you to define “cage free.” Your response would most likely be “not raised in a cage” and that is exactly right. It doesn’t mean the chickens had access to daylight, were able to move freely, or were treated humanely. This is not to say that cage free doesn’t exist. Some chicken farms, like Crystal Valley and Bell & Evans, live up to the true meaning of cage free.

Check out the video below for a better understanding of the term cage free


Free range – allowed to range and forage with relative freedom

The key word above is relative. In most cases, free range actually means that chickens, livestock, or pigs are packed into a warehouse but have a small door that allows them to squeeze outdoors on a tiny, tiny fenced in plot. Again, this isn’t to say that the true meaning of free range doesn’t exist. But, it’s important to recognize that like many other greenwashing terms, the term free range can mean something completely different than what we actually think.

Natural – ?

Who really knows what this means anymore? This word has become so diluted that even fast food companies have started to label their products as natural. My advice is to ignore this label entirely.

Organic –

  • “100% Organic”: Can only contain organic ingredients, meaning no antibiotics, hormones, genetic engineering, radiation or synthetic pesticides or fertilizers can be used. Can display the USDA organic logo and/or the specific certifying agent’s logo.
  • “Organic”: Contains 95% organic ingredients, with the balance coming from ingredients on the approved National List. These products can also display the USDA organic logo and/or the certifier’s logo.
  • “Made with Organic Ingredients”: Must be made with at least 70% organic ingredients, three of which must be listed on the package, and the balance must be on the National List. These products may display the certifier’s logo but not the USDA organic logo.

While the USDA has specific standards for the organic label, it’s important to remember that these labels cost money and they are expensive. Some companies and farms practice organic methods but cannot afford the USDA organic label. So, keep in mind that just because something is labeled as organic, it’s not always better than the (truly) local option.

While these words are “the words” of today, buzzwords and greenwashing is ever evolving. Keep your eyes peeled for new words, such as pastured, which (right now) truly means cage free and free range. For more resources on greenwashing, visit PBS and Greenpeace.



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