Spring cleaning season is upon us -- and for those who care about the environment, the allure of using "green" cleaning products is more powerful than ever. From toilet bowl cleaners laced with lavender oil to window detergents that feature green tea and coconut, the market for products that make good-earth promises is expanding -- as is consumers' appetite for buying them.
Americans spend more than $600 million annually on cleaners that make some claim to environmental friendliness, according to a 2012 consumer survey. But how much better for the environment are these eco-friendly cleaners?
Comparing the environmental impacts of cleaning products is nearly impossible for ordinary shoppers in the supermarket. Notwithstanding green tea, coconut and lavender oil, very few of the ingredients in commercial cleaners -- even many of the green ones -- are familiar to the average buyer. (One popular dish liquid, for example, includes sodium laureth sulfate, lauryl glucoside and sodium benzoate.) Few people can pronounce the names of many of the ingredients, let alone analyze their effects on the planet.
Although the Federal Trade Commission warned companies in 2012 against making sweeping, unverifiable claims about environmental friendliness, the government has done little to help people differentiate between products. There is no environmental analog to the nutritional information panel on food packages. Companies aren't required to disclose all ingredients on cleaning products, and many do not.
If you want to avoid damaging the ecosystem while cleaning your house, I suggest a three-tiered approach.
First, rely on retailers and manufacturers you trust. Whole Foods, for example, goes to great lengths to verify the environmental claims about the products it sells. The company's Eco-Scale program employs independent analysts to rate the green credentials of its products.
Second, look for a third-party certification. The two most popular certifications for cleaning products are EcoLogo, created by the Canadian government and now owned by the Illinois-based company UL, and the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group Green Seal. If you have time to do a little pre-shopping research, another alternative is the EPA's Greener Products guide, available on the agency's website.
Third-party certifications are thorough. To earn them, the company must first prove the product actually works, using industry-standard cleaning tests. They must disclose all of their ingredients and sources. The product must also have minimal effects on laboratory animals after ingestion, inhalation or skin exposure. (The certification program urges companies to rely on existing animal tests where available, and to use alternative methods when possible, to minimize the abuse of laboratory animals inherent in such procedures.)
The analysis then moves to impacts on the planet and nonhuman life. The product cannot be acutely toxic to algae or fish and must be biodegradable. There is a limit on phosphorous, which can cause algal blooms that deplete oxygen in an aquatic environment. Green Seal holds all products to California's strict standards for volatile organic compounds. The package must be recyclable and cannot introduce heavy metals into the product.
To prove that its standards are meaningful, Green Seal conducted a life-cycle assessment -- the tool used by environmental analysts to quantify the cradle-to-grave impacts of a product -- which showed that certified cleaning products are superior to those without certification. (The analysis involved industrial rather than household cleaning products, but the standards are similar.)
Critics of third-party certification point out that manufacturers pay certification companies for the right to carry their seals, which raises the specter of influence. (Green Seal charges between $2,800 and $9,500 to certify a household cleaning product, but the fee is not contingent upon success, which minimizes the risk of bias.)
Also, certification systems are not ratings, so they won't help you differentiate between certified products. That's a major problem, because the certifications are pretty rare. Fewer than 10 household cleaning products carry the Green Seal stamp, and not many more carry EcoLogo certification. The certifiers, who have focused heavily on commercial and industrial products in past decades, are hoping to increase the number of certified household products.
When you are unable to find either green-certified cleaning products or a retailer with a decent track record of environmental stewardship, you have no other choice than to start reading ingredients. It's not fun, and it's not particularly effective -- environmentally damaging materials can be acceptable in low volumes, while some less-harmful ingredients are bad in the wrong combinations -- but it's better than doing nothing at all. So here are a couple of things to look for:
Detergents have two major ingredient categories: "builders" to reduce water hardness and "surfactants" to lower the surface tension of water.
Builders to be avoided include phosphates, which contribute to the deoxygenation of marine environments, and EDTA, or ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, which can bind to heavy metals and damage both people and aquatic animals. Products that have neither of those builders may feature sodium citrate or sodium bicarbonate, which are safer alternatives.
In the world of surfactants and solvents, try to avoid butyl or 2-butoxyethanol, which is toxic when inhaled, and oxalates, which can interfere with animals' hormonal regulation above certain concentrations. Preferred surfactants are alkyl polyglycoside, isopropanol and glycerol.
Perhaps just as important as picking the right product, though, is making your voice heard. Complain to your local retailer about a dearth of certified products. Complain to manufacturers that haven't sought out certification. You shouldn't have to bring your reading glasses to the supermarket just to avoid harming the environment.