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The “Greenwashing” Effect

Clever marketing has allowed the term "plant-based" and "plant-derived" to appear superior, more environmentally friendly, and safer than other products made from synthetic ingredients. But are they really, or is this simply a case of "greenwashing"?

“Greenwashing” is the term used to describe the promotion of a product based on misleading claims of superiority to other products in terms of environmental impact or safety. For example, many cleaning products these days advertise that they are “plant-based” with the implication that these are somehow more environmentally friendly than ones that are formulated with synthetic ingredients. There are several issues here. First, there is the bogus notion that natural substances are inherently safer. You would not want to roll around in a patch of poison ivy or stinging nettle and the pollen that causes the misery of allergies comes from plants. Improperly prepared cassava is a source of cyanide, tropane alkaloids in belladonna are so toxic that eating a few leaves or berries can be fatal and raw castor beans contain ricin, a compound so toxic that it has been used as a chemical weapon. The safety or efficacy of a substance is not determined by its ancestry. It is determined by careful studies not by whether it originates in a plant or a lab.

Then there is the fact that the “plant-derived” ingredients undergo extensive chemical manipulation before they take on their final form. Consider an all-purpose cleaner sold by Seventh Generation, a company that markets cleaning products that “use plant-based cleaning ingredients to get the job done, so you can feel good about using them in your home and around your family.” The name of the company derives from the Iroquois philosophy that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. An admirable goal.

The “plant-derived” detergents are caprylyl glucoside and laureth-6. These compounds are not found in plants, but the raw materials from which they are made are. Laureth-6 is a detergent that is synthesized from lauryl alcohol that is produced from palm kernel oil or coconut oil. That production involves a number of chemical steps, starting with hydrogenation to liberate the lauryl alcohol from the triglycerides (fats) in the oil. Caprylic acid is a minor constituent of palm kernel and coconut oils and can be reacted with glucose to form caprylyl glucoside, a compound that does not occur in nature. There is nothing wrong with these detergents but describing them as “plant-derived” is misleading and meaningless. Tear gas formulated with pepper extract is also plant-based but you would not want to encounter it.

Citric acid is a component of many “plant-based” products and is described as a plant-based pH adjuster. Yes, citric acid is found in plants, but that is not the commercial source. It is made by adding a culture of the mold Aspergillus niger to a glucose medium that is derived from molasses or hydrolyzed corn starch. Of course, that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with using citric acid but again giving it a halo because it is “plant-based” is disingenuous.

I think the “plant-based” descriptor should be trashed. And speaking of trash, another example of greenwashing are trash bags labeled as “recyclable.” These bags are not separated from other trash before being deposited in a landfill or incinerator, so while the plastic may be recyclable, in a practical sense the term is deceptive because garbage bags do not end up being recycled. Unlike garbage bags, this article can be recycled. No greenwashing there.


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