Greenwashing your kids: Advertisers target green parents

Cigarette manufacturer Reynolds American Inc. recently released a new ad campaign for its American Spirit line, touting the eco-friendliness of the brand. The ads boast that the company uses recycled paper, electric hand dryers and ceramic mugs instead of paper towels and disposables cups. It even goes as far as to point out that their sales team drives hybrids. Thankfully it stops short of saying that America Spirits are a healthier cigarette than non-green alternatives, but the message is pretty clear: if you smoke and care about the environment, American Spirit is the brand for you.

Hopefully most people will recognize these ads for what they are, a green tinted smoke screen devised to push an otherwise unhealthy product. But regardless of the campaign’s success, the fact that these ads exist at all says a lot about how the eco movement influences people’s buying habits. If something as unhealthy as tobacco is rebranding itself as green, then it’s safe to assume that phony green marketing has infiltrated other markets as well.

Because parents are such a sought after consumer group—kids are constantly outgrowing, breaking and requiring new products—it makes sense that items aimed at babies and toddlers are susceptible to all kinds of marketing tricks, including greenwashing. To help green minded moms and dads better identify products that are truly eco-friendly, here are tips from Children’s Hospital Boston’s experts.

In some cases jucies aren't much of a healthier alternative to soda

Many juices claim to be “all natural” or brag about their “100 percent fruit” content, but often contain a lot of chemicals and preserving agents as well fructose-based corn syrup, which is a significant contributor to the childhood obesity epidemic.

“Most mass-produced juices contain no real nutritional value, and are filled with as much sugar and chemicals as soda,” says Emily Israel, Phd, associate director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Optimal Weight for Life program. “Part of what makes fruit nutritious is found in the skin and meat of the fruit. If you lose a lot of those benefits in the juice making process, how good can they be?”

Fruit bars and other snacks may have packaging that claim to have natural ingredients like real fruit, but that alone doesn’t make them healthy. As rule, Israel says whole, unprocessed food like fruits and veggies will always be a healthier and more natural option to prepackaged snacks.

“Something can be labeled organic but still not contribute any healthful benefits,” she says. “A fruit bar can be made with real fruit, but still have too much sugar and be too processed to be considered healthy. If children are given packaged foods, try to offer ones with fewer ingredients, and know exactly what those ingredients are.”

And once you’ve found the most natural foods and drinks to give your child, chances are you’ll want to serve them in a clean, green manner. Reusable containers and dishware are greener than disposable bottles and throwaway packaging, but that often means the food spends a lot of time in plastic, which has become a big concern for many parents.

At the root of most of those concerns is Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in the creation of durable, clear plastics, which many believe could negatively impact children’s development if they’re exposed to high levels. To avoid potential problems some parents make a habit out of buying BPA free products, but in doing so they often end up with items made from other plastics, many of which haven’t been proven to be any safer.

Companies love to point out that their products are BPA free, but does that necessarily make them healthier?

“We are exposed to and ingest so many plastics these days, but frankly we still don’t fully know what happens to them once they break down in our systems,” says Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH of Children’s Hospital Boston and faculty member at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. “They could be benign, but then again, they might not be. It’s important for parents to remember that just because you buy a bottle or food dish that says its BPA free, doesn’t mean you’re getting a clean bill of health.”

In fact, Bernstein says that kind of cautious consumer mentality is the best approach when shopping for your children, green minded or not. He says informed buyers tend to be less swayed by flashy advertising and often make better, more calculated choices when picking items for their family.

“If you have the time, research the products you buy. It can go a long way in helping you make the best decisions,” he says. “ As a rule, I think parents need to be wary of any product that claims to be the safest, healthiest or most natural. After all, apples don’t need labels to tell you how good they are.”