Emma Bianco, founder of Pure Earth Collection, has spent the last four years researching the materials used to make conventional baby products. She regularly shares her findings in her natural parent forum, and also does guest posting for other websites and blogs. Here, she talks about green-washing and health-washing, what to look out for and how to avoid it as a parent.
Green-washing is becoming an increasingly well-known term to describe companies who make false or misleading claims around the environmental merits of their products or brands. Similarly, health-washing has been used by some to describe companies making unjustified claims around the health benefits of certain foods.
Well I think there’s another term that needs to be created for companies who make claims that products are safe and non-toxic for babies, when in actual fact they are not. Let’s call this safe-for-baby washing, or perhaps parent-washing: when they unfairly trick us parents into buying products believing them to be safe or natural when indeed they are far from it.
It’s something I feel extremely passionate about because, as parents, of course we all want the best for our babies and our number one goal is to keep them safe and healthy. It’s something that, four years ago as a new, overwhelmed and very over-tired mother I was also tricked into. I was parent-washed. I believed all the safe-for-baby washing I was reading online. I trusted that our regulations would be strict enough to ensure that all the products I was buying for my new baby would be free from harmful substances and safe for him to use. I was wrong.
Searching for safe and natural products
Internet search engines, through no fault of their own, can be our first stumbling block, and this is actually what led me to design our natural fabric sleeping bags. I spent hours searching the internet for “natural baby sleeping bag”, “organic baby sleeping bag”, “natural fabric baby sleeping bag”, “100% natural baby sleeping bag”, “thermoregulating baby sleeping bag”. Back then, as now, these search terms produced results from hundreds of brands claiming to be some, if not all, of those things. Upon reading the product information on their websites I was still lead to believe that I was about to buy a truly natural product. It was only when I scrolled right to the bottom, to the small print which they didn’t want me to read, which was often in a hidden section which had to be expanded to be seen, that I found that they all contained polyester wadding inside. My issue was not with the polyester that they were using in their bags (although this was a fabric which I had already decided I didn’t want my baby wrapped up in), my issue was that they were misleading consumers into thinking that the bags were totally natural, which they weren’t.
So what did I end up doing? I made my own! I created a transparent eco kids brand which parents could really really trust, and our very first product was a truly organic baby sleeping bag. No hidden polyester, no nasty chemicals and no sneaky small print.
More recently I was using search terms such as “organic baby comforter”, for which the very first result was a bunny comforter made from 100% polyester. “Safe baby comforter” produced the first 4 of 5 results as polyester soft toys, and “eco baby comforter” was showing 2 of the first 5 as very non-eco polyester options. These brands seem to be allowed to bid on these search terms (so they come up as a paid ad in your internet results) with no consequences of false advertising claims. So they win your trust for appearing in your search, even though their products are not relevant to what you are actually searching for.
Non-toxic claims and labelling
This is the part that slightly blows my mind. Companies are labeling toys and nursery essentials as non-toxic all the time and, sadly, the words now have little meaning. The phrase is largely unregulated, which means any company can claim that their products are “non-toxic”. What they are usually referring to is that their products do not contain some of the worst offending chemicals that have been banned or restricted in baby items due to previous evidence of toxic responses caused in humans. Firstly, this list of toxic chemicals is limited to just a few which, following extensive testing, have been proven to be dangerous to human health. There are literally thousands of other chemicals which have not yet been tested for which still could be present in these products. And secondly, I have seen dozens of baby products marked as “non-toxic” even when they DO contain some of the worst known offenders. Play mats made from PVC and EVA foam are often claimed to be “non-toxic” when they both give off dangerous gases into the air that our babies breath. PVC is one of the single most harmful plastics for the planet and for human health. From production through to product use and disposal, it’s a major health hazard which damages organs, hormones and the environment, even up to 1,000 years from now when the chemicals decompose and leak into the eco-systems. EVA is similarly concerning.
A 2019 Dispatches documentary (aired on Channel 4) exposed 3 of 5 baby toys bought from Amazon in Europe, all claiming to be “non-toxic”, which contained dangerously high concentrations on phthalates – even up to 500x higher than current EU regulations allow!
We should also be cautious of things labeled as BPA-free. BPA is a chemical that has been found to cause a number of serious illnesses, as well as disrupting the natural hormonal balance in our bodies. It was banned in certain baby items in the UK in 2010, and in America in 2012, but unfortunately the chemicals which have been used to replace it are now thought to be even more toxic.
How to avoid being parent-washed
What can we do? Be aware. Read the small print. Even previously trusted brands have still tricked me, so make sure you read all information for each individual product. Often the so claimed “eco” lines bought out by big brands are not as eco as they claim. Limiting our overall exposure to plastic and synthetic products will help to protect the health of your family and reduce the risk of exposure to toxic substances, so buy natural wherever possible.
If you’re looking for an organic cotton comforter, or would like to find out more about non-toxic baby products and other recommended brands doing good things in this space, head to Pure Earth Collection.