It’s a huge question: how can we evaluate companies, and which ones are best? How can we tell the difference between a company that’s doing good, and one that’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Sometimes it’s harder to judge than we think, and we’ve probably all fallen victim to marketing at one point or another. I know I have!
In the following paragraphs, I’ve attempted to put together a few tips and strategies for evaluating brands and becoming conscious consumers. We’re talking about greenwashing and corporate social responsibility here, so it’s a huge, and often confusing, topic!
Please note that these are general tips, and there will always be exceptions to these rules. Still, hopefully, these strategies will help serve as guiding principles.
Use a few categories, or “grading criteria”
Not every question is relevant for every company/product, and you might find that some companies shine in one area and fall flat in another. Here are a few examples.
- How’s the product itself?
- What are the ingredients/materials? Are they healthy/eco-friendly?
- Is the product durable and made to last?
- What will happen to the product at its end-of-life?
- What’s the packaging?
- Do they have a refill system?
- Is the packaging reusable, compostable/biodegradable?
- Is it curbside recyclable in your area? Does the company have a packaging take-back program?
- How do they treat their workers?
- Where is the product made, and how can they ensure fair and safe working practices?
- It’s not just about the finished product. Where are the ingredients sourced from, and how was that done?
- Does the product seem inexpensive? That likely means that someone isn’t being paid fairly along the way.
- What are their business practices?
- Do they give back to the community? Do they donate to environmental or community projects? Do they do any carbon offsetting?
- What sort of projects or politics do they fund? For example, there are recent news stories about certain companies funding the Trump campaign, even indirectly.
- Do they practise the “triple bottom line” approach or the “integrated management” approach, in which they value social, environmental, and financial measures?
Can they back up claims with certifications?
Please note that certifications don’t always tell the whole story. For example, a small-scale local farm that practises regenerative farming methods and will happily tell you all about them is likely a wonderful choice even if they’re not certified. Also, not every certification is applicable for every product.
Certifications to look for include (but are not limited to): Certified Organic (various local certification bodies exist), Fair Trade Certified, Certified Vegan, Oceanwise or Marine Stewardship Council, Soil Association Certified Organic, Rainforest Alliance Certified, and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). A company can also be “B Corp” certified.
Be wary of the terms natural, pure, nontoxic, and eco-friendly, which don’t, in themselves, mean anything.
Don’t be intimidated! It often all comes down to a few key points:
- Read their website. How easily can you find out the answers to the previously discussed questions? Are they proud of the answers? This will tell you a lot, as public transparency is huge.
- Ask them questions.
- Do they get back to you?
- Do they answer your questions properly, or have they given vague or irrelevant claims? If they make broad claims without giving specific examples, be wary.
- Do an online search. What is the general consensus? Is there controversy you should know about that the company is glossing over?