The dirty amongst the ‘clean’: Cleanwashing explained

Greenwashing has a new evil twin...
Loading the player...

You may have heard the term ‘clean’ tossed around when referring to beauty products. Whether it’s marked with a label, referred to in advertisements, or signified by green leaf symbol. It’s taken the industry by storm.

But, what does it mean?

As consumers become increasingly aware of the need for sustainability and social responsibility, many companies are eager to position themselves as such; sustainable and socially conscious. The danger in this, however, is this messaging is not always backed up with substantive evidence or real-world impact. This can be referred to as ‘cleanwashing’- when companies make exaggerated or misleading claims about their environmental or social practices without providing sufficient proof or follow-through.

While beauty companies can certainly be environmentally-conscious, it’s the label of ‘clean’ as a marketing tactic that has ruffled some feathers within the industry.

WATCH: ‘Cleanwashing’ explained. Article continues after video.

Labelled the ‘evil twin’ of greenwashing, cleanwashing is a marketing strategy used by companies to make their products or services appear more environmentally-conscious than they actually are.

Like greenwashing, cleanwashing often misleads consumers into supporting companies that don’t support the causes they publicly align with. However, while greenwashing refers to the false marketing of products and policies that are environmentally-friendly, cleanwashing refers to products marketed as ‘clean’. 

While beauty companies can certainly be environmentally-conscious, it’s the label of ‘clean’ as a marketing tactic that has ruffled some feathers within the industry. (Credit: Getty)

Speaking to Nutritionist, Physiologist and founder of My Way Up Steve Collins, we uncover the nitty gritty of cleanwashing and how you can make more informed decisions as a consumer. 

What does ‘clean’ mean?

Clean beauty is not a universally defined term. According to Collins, it often refers to ‘non-toxic’ products that are free from ‘harmful chemicals’. 

While a grey area, “The reason people might opt for a ‘clean’ version of a product, is some ingredients are known to be harmful to humans, such a parabens or talc. They may also be concerned (and rightly so) about the impact these chemicals could be having on the environment, such as our water ways,” Collins says.

How to recognise cleanwashing

As told by Collins, brands can clean wash consumers in a number of ways. As “the industry is largely unregulated”, false marketing can fly under the radar.

Vague and misleading terms such as ‘natural’ and ‘pure’ are common when describing ingredients, while eco-themed imagery can also lead a customer astray.

Alongside this, he says that brands may emphasise the lack of ‘harmful’ ingredients in their products to take attention away from other ‘harmful’ ones as well as aligning themselves with considered “credible sources” such as “wellness ambassadors”.

Make an informed purchasing decision with the following four tips. (Credit: Getty)

How to avoid falling into the ‘cleanwashing trap’

When purchasing a product, Collins recommends that people consider the following four tips:

  • “Don’t just buy a product based on face value”
  • “Research the company and their products in depth”
  • “Look for third-party certifications”
  • “Look for brands that have been created by experts in their field”

Related stories