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'Green' Cleaning Products Labels: Reliable?

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 29 Mar 2010 | comments*Discuss
 
Green Cleaners Natural Ingredients Label

In our quest to reduce pollution to the environment and protect our systems from conventional toxic chemicals, many of us are opting to buy ‘green’ cleaning products – supposedly made with “natural, biodegradable, non-toxic” ingredients. In fact, the ‘green’ cleaners market has boomed in recent years and is worth over $100 billion a year in the United States alone. However, a closer look at these products show that just having the word “natural” on a label may not be a guarantee of product safety at all!

The ‘Green’ Promise

You’ve all seen these products taking up more and more shelf space in the supermarkets and hardware stores now – products with the words “eco-friendly”, “natural”, “organic”, “earth-friendly” or “environmentally-friendly” prominently displayed as part of their brand names. Products which market themselves as “green” support this claim by promising that they contain only natural agents, which are biodegradable and do not linger in the environment or introduce a toxic threat to the wild ecosystem or to our bodies. However, while the UK government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has issued guidelines for the use of ‘green’ claims by products and business, they are just that – guidelines. There is no legal requirement for a product to satisfy certain environmental standards in order to be allowed to include words like “earth-friendly” or “natural” in its name or labelling.

In actual fact, the United Kingdom doesn’t actually yet have its own national ‘green’ labelling scheme covering all products which requires independent third party certification. There are a variety of voluntary labelling schemes covering various individual products or sectors and these can support the fact that the product has achieved a certain level of environmental credibility – however, this can depend very much on the reputation & quality of the labelling scheme itself and how strictly they adhere to criteria. In addition, many companies now have their own company-specifc labelling schemes or use a range of different labels, all covering specific aspects of their products. Ultimately, it can all be very confusing for consumers.

Buyer Beware!

Despite the reassuring words and ‘green claims’ in the product brand names and even labels, be careful. Defra does provide guidenlines for what a ‘green claim’ should be and how companies should use them – for example, it says that a green claim SHOULD be:

  • Truthful, accurate and able to be substantiated
  • Clear and in plain language
  • Explicit about the meaning of any symbol

And that a green claim SHOULD NOT be:

  • Ambiguous or vague
  • Imply that a product is exceptional
  • Imply the product is endorsed
  • Use language that exaggerates

But at the end of the day, these are just voluntary guidelines and Defra itself admits that it has no legal statutory force or enforcement role with regards to misleading self-declared claims. Thus, for example, while it says in its Green Claims Code that “Claims should always avoid the vague use of terms such as 'sustainable', 'green', 'non-polluting' and so on. Likewise, they should avoid linking vague descriptions, such as 'friendly' or 'kind', with words like 'earth', 'nature', 'environment', 'eco' and 'ozone'. Symbols should not feature natural objects such as trees, flowers, butterflies, or globes, unless there is a direct link between the product, the object and the environmental benefit being claimed.” – these are all recommendations and not enforceable by law.

This does not mean that misleading or false claims cannot be challenged – consumers are entitled to report a manufacturer to their local Trading Standards Officer or complain to the Advertising Standards Authority – but this does rely on people making the effort to do this. If not, in the meantime, the potentially false ‘green claim’ remains unchallenged and continues to be used in marketing.

Keeping yourself and your family safe

even if the products do contain natural ingredients which are “biodegradable” and “derived from natural sources”, these ingredients could still be substances that could do you harm and are best to be avoided. Petroleum distillates, for example, which are skin, eye and respiratory tract irritants and possibly even suspected carcinogens are used in a large number of so-called “natural” cleaning products. Volatile organic compounds, , can cause respiratory irritation, asthma and even dizziness, Phosphates, while not directly causing us harm, can cause proliferation of algae in water if discharged into the wild, thus killing marine life.

Overall, regardless of whether a cleaning product is labelled as “green” or “eco-friendly”, if it comes with labels displaying words such as “CAUTION”, “POISON” or “HAZARDOUS” – it is best to avoid it. Similarly, if the instructions tell you to do more than just “flush with water” or “drink a glass of water” in dealing with accidental contact or ingestion, then it is likely that the ingredients contain harmful chemicals that are best avoided.

There are still many good, reputable “green” cleaners on the market – it is just a case of being savvy and reading the labels, as well as cross-checking any awards and labelling schemes displayed to ensure that they are not just a marketing gimmick.

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