Feature Stories


Deborah Fleischer


Spot the Greenwash: How to Find Authentic Green Products


Whether you are buying supplies for your department or your home, it is not always straight forward which choices will align with your LivingGreen values. Unfortunately, some companies use green marketing ploys, rather than making meaningful commitments. The following tips, adapted from Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) winter newsletter, will help you find authentic green products.

Compostable Products: Biodegradable vs. Compostable by BPI
UCSF is committed to reaching a goal of zero waste by 2020 and purchasing compostable products can help UCSF reach that goal. However, beware of products that make claims of being biodegradable. For example, a UCSF vendor was recently promoting biodegradable gloves. That sounds good, but to make sure a product is truly compostable look for the term “compostable,” which is a legal term promoted by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), North America’s leading certifier of compostable products and packaging. Better yet, look for products certified by BPI. Their certification program ensures that products and packaging displaying the BPI logo have been independently tested and verified according to scientifically based standards. The BPI website includes a search function where you can explore products that have been certified. 

According to BPI, “Technically speaking, lots of things are biodegradable. That is because the term ‘biodegradable’ has no time frame attached to it, meaning that if a given material will eventually break down, it can be described as biodegradable.” That could take 500-100 years!  The term ‘compostable’ has a time frame attached to it, defined by each individual composter and their specific operational requirements. Generally speaking, most composters expect the material to break down in fewer than 80 days.

Paper Products: Forest-Friendly vs. 100% Post-Consumer Waste Recycled
Paper towels and copy paper can claim to be forest-friendly or responsibly sourced—but sometimes industry groups have created their own forestry certifications, using weak standards not supported by environmental groups. To ensure that your paper product avoids cutting down virgin trees, look for 100% post-consumer or 100% post-consumer waste (PCW) recycled content. ConservaTree, a great source of information on paper products, stresses that the critical words here are “end products” and “consumers.” Paper that is 100% PCW is an authentic green choice because it is remade from used consumer paper that has been repurposed at a recycling facility. This can include someone’s copy paper, direct mail, envelopes, statements, shredded materials, and other recycled papers, and saves greenhouse gas emissions, wastewater, net energy, and trees. And remember that UCSF Documents and Media is now offering tree-free paper, another great option.

Another choice, when 100% PCW is not available, is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, which ensures that the trees used were sustainably harvested.

Meat and Poultry: No Antibiotics vs. USDA Organic

There is overwhelming scientific consensus that overuse of antibiotics in livestock is a health hazard to people. Claims about no antibiotic use are self-verified and typically not validated by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspection. The easiest way for health-conscious consumers to avoid antibiotics, growth hormones, or artificial colors and flavors in food is to choose USDA Organic. Adherence to the USDA’s organic rules prohibit antibiotic use on livestock and must be verified on-site by an independent accredited certifier, providing a high level of confidence that any meat or poultry labeled USDA Organic comes from animals that never have been given any antibiotics.

Personal Care: Natural Botanicals vs. EWG VERIFIED™ or Cradle to Cradle Certified™

Your shampoo might boast of organic lavender or natural and plant-based ingredients, but that doesn’t mean it’s free of harmful chemicals. According to EDF, Just for Me, a shampoo marketed to young black girls as a “natural sulfate-free hair milk” was recently found to contain cancer-causing benzene. The new EWG VERIFIED™ program (see our June story on this program here) certifies products that are free of chemicals linked to certain health or environmental concerns. Cradle to Cradle™ certification rewards ingredient safety and takes into account other attributes, such as recyclability. At a minimum, check for these red flags on ingredient lists: parabens, fragrance, phthalates, and toluene.

Household Cleaners: Nontoxic vs. EPA Safer Choice

According to EDF, a cleaning product can claim to be nontoxic, but there is no legal or scientific standard for this term. In practice, this assertion has little or no meaning. Be aware, too, that the word natural doesn’t necessarily mean safer. EPA Safer Choice, on the other hand, ensures that cleaning products are made with the safest possible ingredients for their intended function. There are more than 2,000 products with this certification available on the market today. For UCSF institutional use, the Office of Sustainability recommends using the Green Seal certification or UL’s Green Guard label, which focuses on reducing indoor air pollution and the risk of chemical exposure. Green Seal also includes a certification for household cleaning products. Another great resource is the EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning.