“Green” Product Labeling: ‘Confusing’ is an Understatement

So many products we regularly purchase are things that are in, on, or around us. Food goes directly into the body, cosmetics and lotions are applied to our skin and absorbed into the body, and cleaning products have components that stay in the air we breathe in.Since this is such a pervasive issue, the Human Impacts Institute decided to try and find out the “truth” about environmentally-based labeling for such products and boy, were we quickly overwhelmed! There are literally hundreds of labels and logos making bold, green claims, some meaningful, some not: ALL-NATURAL! CRUELTY-FREE! 100% ORGANIC! CERTIFIED BY (fill in the blank) ASSOCIATION! GRASS-FED! What do they mean? How do we know if they are truthful?

Those are the questions we asked when looking at 6 household cleaners ranging from the mainstream (Mr. Clean, Clorox) to the eco-targeted (Trader Joe’s, Dr. Bronner’s). Most of these products have lots of fancy symbols on their packaging, which didn’t help our confusion.

But we were determined to find out what the best cleaning products are out there! (Note: The word “best” here is clearly subjective because it depends on what is important to you.) We looked for what was the best for the environment, health, animal rights, and social criteria, as long as that information was available.

For the cleaning products category, we decided to start with two sources that the HII crew had experience with in the past: Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning and the Good Guide. Similar to the labeling, there are numerous guides out there available for almost any kind of product.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) Guide has recently come up with a letter grade (from A to F) for over 2000 cleaning products by analyzing toxicity and safety information relevant to human health and the environment. It also incorporates how transparent the company is since lack of information can often mean purposeful omission, or lying. Read more about EWG’s methodology.

The Good Guide is a certified B-Corp with information on over 175,000 products (food, toys, personal care, household products) and a handy mobile app to boot. Good Guide’s scientific team (experts in chemical risk assessment, life cycle assessment, environmental engineering, chemistry, nutrition and sociology) evaluates products on three dimensions–environmental, health, and social responsibility–to come up with a rating from 0.0 (worst) to 10.0 (best). Even though Good Guide is a for-profit organization, which might trigger suspicion for some, it demonstrates transparency of sponsors’ influence (with zero influence on the actual ratings themselves). Read about Good Guide’s practices.

We were definitely surprised with the results! While many brands landed where we expected them (Br. Bronner’s Sal Suds got an A and a 7.9), some brands that we believed were trusted scored low while other brands we assumed were bad, surprisingly scored high. On top of that, different products from different lines scored very differently. In other words, the all-purpose cleaner of a certain brand might have received an A, while the toilet bowl cleaner in the same brand scored a D.Yes, this sparked simultaneous laughter, frustration, sadness, and fear, but what we ultimately learned is that the upfront research time cost was high at first, but once you found your trusted and effective brand for each task, the research phase was over. And with mobile apps and websites easily available on the web, it’s not as difficult as you’d think. A little bit of research goes a long way to feeling good about keeping yourself and your loved ones informed and safe!

Armed with two tools to compare our products, we compiled the following information on our six cleaners:EWG Grade (A=Best)Good Guide (GG) Rating (10=Best)-Trader Joe’s Multi-purpose Cleaner (Cedarwood & Sage), recieved an F (EWG) and 3.7 (GG)-Better Life Simply Floored! Natural Floor Cleaner, recieved a D (EWG)-Green Works Bathroom Cleaner, recieved a C (EWG) and 7.5 (GG)-Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds Liquid Cleanser, recieved an A (EWG) and 7.9 (GG)-Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Lavender Bathroom Cleaner Spray, recieved a B (EWG) and 8.2 (GG)-Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser, recieved a B (EWG) and 7.4 (GG)

We’ll continue to write about labeling, but with cleaning products, it should be noted, that simple homemade cleaners (e.g. vinegar and essential oil) are often the safest and cheapest alternatives. Let us know what combos work well for you!

Rachana Patel, Environmental Education Intern

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