How can I tell if a product is ethical?

It’s not always easy to work out whether our favourite brands’ green credentials are up to scratch. With companies falling over themselves to promote their eco-friendly products, learn how you can cut through the noise and make informed, conscious choices.
  Published:  18 Aug 2022    |      3 minute read

It’s easy for companies to use words like “eco-friendly”, “natural” or “green”, but much harder to change their business models and sourcing policies so that they’re genuinely environmentally sustainable. 

We unpack some of the ways businesses are greenwashing and how to spot it, along with tips to help you make planet-friendly purchases.

“Green” fashion isn’t always what it seems

Some companies shout loudly about their small ethical or sustainable line when the majority of their products and practices don’t meet those standards. This is called greenwashing.

“Greenwashing” is a marketing ploy used by companies to make themselves seem  environmentally friendly, even when they're not.

As the public's awareness of environmental issues increases, more and more sectors are keen to promote their green credentials. Fast fashion and fossil fuel companies are particularly notorious for greenwashing.

H&M is a prime example. Its “Conscious choice” collection uses some organic cotton and recycled polyester, but its fundamental business model is built on selling damaging fast fashion, and recycled polyester still sheds harmful microfibres when washed. H&M’s clothes recycling scheme can’t begin to keep up with the amount of clothing the company produces. During its launch week, 1,000 tonnes of clothes were collected. This would have taken 12 years to recycle, but the equivalent is produced by H&M in just 48 hours.

Greenwashing is becoming so problematic that regulators are getting involved. Boohoo, ASOS and George at Asda are being investigated by the Competition and Markets Authority over whether their green claims are misleading customers.

Two women in a thrift store looking at a brown fleece
Two women thrift shopping for clothes
Credit: cottonbro via Pexels

Are supermarkets tricking us?

Tesco, Aldi, Asda and Lidl have all come under fire for using fake farm names on some of their fresh produce, to make their products more appealing to customers.

Tesco is a serial offender. Its “Eastman’s Deli” sliced cooked chicken comes from Thailand, and its “Nightingale Farms” cherry tomatoes, while giving the impression they’re sourced purely from a British farm, could in fact come from 11 other countries including Egypt and Morocco. Most notoriously, Tesco sells bacon, gammon and pork chops branded as “Woodside Farms”, to the dismay of a Nottinghamshire farmer who owns the real Woodside Farm, a free-range pig farm selling direct to customers. Tesco still sells “Woodside Farms” pork, and some of it isn’t even produced in the UK, let alone on a sustainable farm.

So how do we become more conscious consumers? 

5 top tips for eco-friendly shopping

  1. Watch out for eco-buzzwords like "green", "eco-friendly", "sustainable" and “natural”. Check on the packaging to see if there’s any more information to justify their use.
  2. Be wise to the use of emotive images. Look out for things like idyllic farmland landscapes on a packet of non-organic or indoor-reared sausages – such images bear no relation to how or where the product was actually produced.
  3. Ask questions of brands and retailers. Question how their products are made, how they protect the environment and look after workers, and any green claims they make, especially if it’s not clear on the product itself or their website.
  4. Look for credible certification schemes from organisations you trust. Certified organic or Fairtrade in particular have robust, independent standards and verification, and can be found on many foods, as well as some clothing and cosmetics.
  5. Be wary of questionable certification claims such as "sustainable palm oil" in food, cosmetics and household products. This voluntary, industry-led certification holds little weight. Better yet, avoid palm oil completely – it's a major cause of deforestation and devastates wildlife.
A stall of fresh fruit and vegetables with a sign saying they are certified organic
Organic fruit and veg stall
Credit: Kenny Eliason via Unsplash

5 top tips for living a sustainable lifestyle

  1. Buy less. Reuse and repair instead of buying new. If you do have to buy something, see if it’s available second hand, repurposed or to hire.
  2. Think about the lifecycle of your purchases. Seek out products that are made to last and are reusable, or at least fully recyclable, at the end of their life. This goes for everything from clothes to electronics.
  3. Try to resist fast fashion. Instead, buy pre-loved or vintage clothing. If you do buy new clothes, opt for quality staple pieces that don’t go out of fashion rather than this season’s must-haves. These items are also easier for charity shops to resell. Companies like By Rotation let you rent clothes as an alternative to buying.
  4. Choose a sustainable diet. Eat more seasonal, fresh, unprocessed veg and plant-based proteins like pulses and beans, as well as “less and better” meat. Processed foods are most likely to contain ingredients like palm oil. Tasty meals lower in meat can also be cheaper, as well as being better for you and the planet. If you do eat meat, try to buy smaller amounts direct from farmers that operate to high environmental and animal welfare standards.
  5. Keep the pressure on companies. Businesses that want your money are hugely sensitive to customer opinion. Keep asking questions, join initiatives, like our Planet over Profit campaign, that put pressure on brands to improve their practices, and let them know you’ll take your business elsewhere if they don’t improve.