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How ‘COVID-washing’ became the new greenwashing

Pseudoscientific products that claim to help mitigate, treat, or cure coronavirus are still everywhere on the internet, even as the FDA cracks down.

How ‘COVID-washing’ became the new greenwashing
[Photo: Chillim/iStock; Michał Parzuchowski/Unsplash]

An onset of consumer goods that feed off the fear of coronavirus reveals a disheartening reality: There’s no better time for capitalism to shine than during a pandemic.

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From dietary supplements to juices to pants (yes, pants) and bedsheets, brands are employing a cruel kind of marketing to sell their products. The strategy, unique to the year 2020, might be dubbed “COVID-washing.” Like greenwashing before it, where companies convey misleading information that their products are sustainable, COVID-washing draws in consumers by conveying the false impression that a certain product can cure or repel COVID-19. There’s a range within which brands can implement COVID-washing, from explicitly advertising an antiviral power to associating with the concept of “immunity boosting.”

Dietary supplements, already an infamously scammy industry, often play on the artless side of COVID-washing, outright promising to derail the spread of coronavirus. According to a warning letter issued by the Food and Drug Administration in early March, a company called Vivify Holistic Clinic offered supplements, teas, and tinctures that promoted antiviral benefits; some claimed to prevent infection from coronavirus. (According to the warning letter, the company directed its consumers to a website entitled CoronavirusDefense.com to purchase its products; the site is now defunct.)

This product is promoted with unapproved claims to prevent, treat, mitigate, or cure COVID-19. FDA warns consumers to avoid unproven and potentially unsafe products. [Photo: FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs, Health Fraud Branch]
Since there is currently no cure for the coronavirus, it’s clear that many products are preying on consumer distress, making claims that are unequivocally false. Since early March, the FDA has issued warning letters to more than 107 companies for selling unapproved or misbranded products related to COVID-19. Amazon has allegedly taken down 6.5 million unauthorized coronavirus products from its site since March, but even with FDA and FTC regulation, some of these products are still falling through the cracks.

Companies are not permitted to make medical claims—that their product can treat or cure coronavirus, for instance—unless their product has been approved by the FDA. Some get around this with semantics, using language that suggests a product can benefit the immune system, then noting how a strong immune system is key to warding off the virus.

A company called NeoLife, for example, promoted a “daily phytonutrient pack” called “My Corona Defense,” asserting it could “help boost immunity to fight COVID-19 pandemic situation” on its Facebook page. Similarly, a company called 78Minerals is advertising a product that it says can “help fight the coronavirus and strengthen your immune system.”

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When reached for comment, Dennis Cullison, owner of 78Minerals, denied providing any false information in regards to the products sold on the company website. “We only say that (which is a fact) by taking minerals strengthens and boost your immune system, never said that it cures Covid so make sure your have your story straight [sic],” he wrote in an email, errors and all. He continued: “When you say can HELP fight off the corona virus is not the same does or can or will. Our product is made in a FDA lab. [sic]”

Even without using the C word directly, brands are beefing up on tactics that scratch at our desire to stay healthy and buck sickness. One common strategy? Capitalizing on the unspoken implications of phrases like “immune-boosting” and “immune strengthening,” as 78Minerals’ Cullison does. Take Bolthouse Farms’ immunity shot, a new product that raises the question why a salad-dressing brand is making immunity drinks. The two-ounce beverage and many like it play into the belief that we can individually strengthen our immune systems to prevent illness. Purported immunity boosters are surging in popularity; an analysis from Nutrition Business Journal predicts that the sale of cold, flu, and immunity supplements will hit $5.2 billion by the end of 2020, up more than 50% from 2019.

You’re not alone if you’re drawn to so-called immune boosters and believe in the cold-fighting powers of vitamin C; orange juice sales, too, are up 46%, a major spike credited to the pandemic. There’s no evidence the beverage can cure a cold or ward off viruses, but everyone and their mother will tell you it works. Anti-vaxxers have gone a step further, pushing a narrative that vitamin C is a coronavirus cure.

So, what does it really mean to boost one’s immunity? Pretty much nothing, it turns out, when it comes to over-the-counter elixirs. “There is not a magic immunity booster for coronavirus,” says Purvi Parikh, an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy & Asthma Network. “The things that we recommend for ‘boosting your immune system’—if you want to use that phrase—are a healthy lifestyle, having a well balanced-diet, exercise . . . all of the things you should already be [working on].” The only supplement Parikh recommends for her patients is vitamin D, which she says can help maintain a healthy immune system, especially for those in the northeast who probably lack access to sunlight.

Even more slick, other companies are mining the current momentum of fear without needing to make any direct immunity-boosting proclamations. Sunlighten’s Solo System—which the company calls a “sleeping bag for your soul”—is an in-home infrared sauna that it says promotes benefits ranging from happiness to detoxification to natural anti-aging. The Solo System is hardly the only wellness product to make these declarations, but its real COVID-washing egregiousness comes from attempting to profit from CNN anchor Chris Cuomo’s COVID-19 diagnosis. In a recent pitch email, a marketing representative for the product wrote, “Chris Cuomo used a Sunlighten sauna every day to treat his COVID-19 symptoms.” The pitch linked to a blog post authored by Cuomo’s wife, which reads “[Chris] has also been sitting in the Sunlighten sauna every day, which seems to make him feel better and has helped with his fever.”

“We stand by the science behind the use of infrared saunas and their ability to strengthen the immune system by raising core body temperature,” says Aaron Zack, Sunlighten’s CEO, when reached for comment. “Having a strong immune system is proven to help ward off viruses—so it is one way to help keep your body in optimal condition to help fight off viruses.”

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The company circumvented making any true medical claims by pointing to a trusted figure’s treatment strategy. The email noted “how infrared saunas are the newest, timely, at-home wellness essential, as infrared saunas enhance immunity (to prep one’s body against potential COVID-19), mitigate stress (that can be caused by the pandemic).”

While there is a small body of research that touches upon the possible health benefits of sauna use, there is no specific science to suggest that at-home sauna systems can prevent the spread of coronavirus or mitigate its symptoms. To make such claims is an enormous jump—but one that might just work in an age of consumer despair.

The COVID-washing strategy is not specific to wellness products; it has also made its way into fashion. “Virus-fighting” denim stands out for being so bewilderingly (and hilariously) deplorable. In July, Diesel announced a partnership with Polygiene, a chemical company that can apply a technology that prevents 99% of viruses from attaching to fabric. ViralOff, the finishing treatment, will be applied to select garments in the Diesel spring/summer 2021 collection. Concerningly, this kind of new-age COVID clothing will provide consumers with a false sense of security; the coronavirus is transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets . . . not jeans. Plus, even if pandemic pants could be effective, how many of us would willingly put on a pair of jeans right now? Unabashedly wearing soft pants at every hour of the day is just about the only good thing to happen during these arduous times.

New “antiviral sleep protection” similarly exploits consumer miseducation. MagniProtect’s antiviral and antibacterial mattresses, toppers, and pillows are made with fabrics that can successfully eliminate 99% of the coronavirus within 60 minutes, according to a press release. There is seemingly more benefit to having an antiviral mattress than an antiviral pair of jeans, since these could find a place in hospitals. But even so, these products are marketed under the false implication that the virus is spread through contact with fabrics. If we want to be all doom and gloom, we could worry that maybe the next pandemic will infect through our jeans and sheets, but there’s no evidence that this is the case.

For what it’s worth, some antiviral fabrics and chemical treatments are lab-tested and proven effective in suppressing viruses, and they could ultimately be useful. Some companies have rallied around copper for its antiviral properties; the material has shown up on phone cases and hospital equipment, and it has been used in high-trafficked surfaces, such as in water fountains and tabletops, to lower the risk for infection. The problem with the jeans and the bedsheets, however, is that the marketing suggests to consumers that the products are necessary investments for protection, glossing over the science that points to how the virus actually spreads.

In a time when people are fraught with anxiety over their health, companies are callously wielding COVID-washing to sell snake oil. As the FDA continues to send warning letters to companies for phony claims, it’ll be up to the consumer to examine products with a skeptical eye and decide what works and what’s a farce. For right now, the best bet may be to stick to CDC guidelines—social distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands—and save the money you would’ve spent on potentially quack remedies for a vacation when this is all over.

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This story has been updated with a comment from Sunlighten.

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