Green is my favorite color. I love green as an idea just as much as a color, but eco-conscious consumerism grows, is green turning into just another buzzword?

Well, yes, and no. More companies are recognizing that we want green products, which is great. But some companies do more, while others mostly make an effort to talk a good game. How do you tell the difference, and what really makes a product green?

Here are 5 great tips to help empower yourself to buy products that truly live out the green message.

1. Learn the company's mission

Yeah, it’s exhausting to research every single purchase you make. Most people are willing to do it for big investments, like a car or something else, but even your weekly and monthly purchases add up over the years.

A company’s mission statement is carefully crafted in marketing-speak, but even that will tell you if environmental impact is part of the company's culture or even on their radar. When you read about a company’s environmental policies, make sure to look beyond well-crafted statements and look for specifics. A company that sets long-term goals for reducing their environmental impact—including materials, shipping, post-production waste—is one that’s thinking about the future, and about the world we're leaving for our children.

2. Judge a book by its cover

A product’s packaging tells you a lot about their environmental practices. Is it recyclable, or better yet, made from recycled materials? Does it uses resources efficiently, or is it an over-packaged mess? Packaging doesn't tell you everything, but it definitely matters.

3. Look for transparency

Does the company make information available about the product from start to finish—where it comes from, how a product is made, what the packaging consists of? A company that cares about its environmental impact will tell you what it has done and what their plan moving forward is if it’s committed to being green.

It’s impossible to manufacture something that doesn’t have some adverse impact on people, plants, animals, or the atmosphere. But a company that’s committed to environmental sustainability will find ways to mitigate and offset that impact. Patagonia is a pretty great example of this—they invite the consumer in to what they do, and explain what their decision-making process looks like.

4. Read labels & know what they mean

Labelling is crafted to make you want to buy something. From presentation to word choice, labels are designed to get you to feel good about buying stuff. If a package says an item is “environmentally friendly” or “all natural,” that's nice—but those phrases aren't regulated, so companies decide how they want to define them.

There are some nationally and internationally recongized (and regulated) labels that are attached to actual environmental standards. Keep an eye out for the following:

  • Energy Star: this applies to appliances and electronics which are energy saving, so it matters on the consumer end
  • USDA Organic seal: If organic food is a part of your environmental focus, the USDA Organic designation is a regulated designation.
  • Green Seal: a longstanding certification for cleaning products, paints, paper goods and others that has universal standards for environmental impact.
  • Forest Stewardship Council logo: The FSC has a certification program that works to protect the rights of workers and promote sustainability of wood products (including paper).

5. Be aware of “greenwashing”

NPR's little listicle, “The Six Sins of Greenwashing,” reminds us that while truly green products are important to the environment, the concept of “green” has become a mainstream marketing trend, and businesses are crafty enough to make sure that they get your green. Vague claims of environmentalism are used to sell the idea of a green product without actually making it green. Look beyond the package. Just because something has a picture of a waterfall or a tree on it doesn’t mean it’s sustainable.  

What’s the best defense against greenwashing? Do your research. Comparison shop before you go to the store, so you don’t get sucked into the happy tree dancing with the endangered lion labels. Know what certifications you’re looking for. Learn about the companies you make purchases from, and look for ones that tell you what they’ve done and what they plan on doing. A product that’s really green will stand up to the scrutiny.

Emily Rabbitt is a freelance and fiction writer in the Washington, D.C. area. She is a Massachusetts native, iced coffee enthusiast, and marathon runner, and tries to be a good citizen of the planet. Follow her on Twitter: @rabbitterun.