"No matter what type of product you’re shopping for, labels can be confusing and misleading. Some companies use terms like “all natural”, “eco-friendly”, and “green” to make consumers believe their products are safe, and this marketing tactic is so popular it even has a name: greenwashing. In reality, none of these terms necessarily indicate that a product is 100% organic or free of chemicals that have potential toxic effects. The best way for us to become more savvy consumers is to learn about the marketing prowess behind terms that make us believe a product is safe, and how these terms are used to sell everything from food to cosmetics, and even pest control products.
The term “all natural” certainly sounds appealing, and many consumers readily assume that it holds the same meaning as “100% organic”. The FDA only regulates the term “natural” in regards to color, flavor or synthetic substances that are added to the food, but gives no indication as to whether pesticides, herbicides, or other contaminants might be found in the product. Consumers associate the word “natural” with being free of pesticides and other potential toxins, but unlike the term “organic”, there is no objective criteria that a product must meet to be considered “natural”.
In the pest control industry, the “all natural” moniker is often used to describe products that contain permethrin, a synthetic chemical that mimics the insecticidal properties of natural chrysanthemum flower extracts. This association with the flower is used to justify the use of “all natural” in describing permethrin products, and is often touted in marketing campaigns as evidence that permethrin comes without risk. This term neatly sidesteps issues with permethrin being toxic to more than just mosquitoes, and its EPA classification as a possible human carcinogen.
“Eco-friendly” is often used to describe products like clothing and cosmetics, and is another term that invokes good feelings in consumers. In general, the term suggests that a product is processed in a way that is environmentally sound, and describes things like product formulation and packaging. But just like with “all natural”, a product that’s labelled as “eco-friendly” doesn’t come with any kind of assurance as to how its ingredients were produced. Pest control products with permethrin may use “eco-friendly” to describe themselves, often touting the chrysanthemum association. Some other permethrin products use “eco-friendly” as a means to compare themselves to organophosphate pesticides, which are highly toxic to humans and wildlife. But comparing permethrin to another problematic pesticide doesn’t take away from its inherent risks. In addition to permethrin’s potential to cause toxic effects in people, it’s role in the death of bee populations should be considered anything but “eco-friendly”.
Perhaps the least specific of all these terms, “green” is loosely used in marketing to associate anything from products to people with the environmental movement. If the word “green” is all a product has going for it, don’t trust that it’s any safer for your family than generic offerings.
Now that you’re better equipped to identify the terms that don’t really mean anything, you might be wondering what exactly makes a product qualify as “organic”. The USDA only uses the term to describe products that have been made using approved methods that “integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.” Producers who claim to meet these standards are verified by a certifying agent before their product can be labelled as “organic”, making it the most tangible and comprehensive term in a sea of greenwashed marketing.
The pest control industry may market permethrin as “all natural”, “eco-friendly”, or “green”, but none of these terms come with the same quantifiable guarantees that “100% organic” does. When it comes to pest control, or any products that you choose to use around your family, “100% organic” should be the only term that really matters.