SC Johnson, the corporate dynasty behind such well-known brands as Shout, Windex, and Ziploc, has done something a bit radical: it has set up a website called What's Inside that lists the ingredients, and the purpose of said ingredients, in its home-cleaning and air-freshening products.
According to GreenBiz.com, the site came about after cleaning-industry companies came up
with a voluntary initiative in late 2008 to disclose their ingredients
via websites, toll-free numbers, and labels. Currently there is no legal requirement for products to list ingredients that
may cause harm over time, only immediately hazardous
ones, so it's kind of a big deal.
But only kind of, because What's Inside doesn't tell you what's inside preservatives and fragrances. Indeed, a quick glance at the Glade products in the "Air Care"
section (a term that makes me chuckle—let's care for the air by
spraying stuff into it!) revealed a message that "Fragrance information will be added soon." According to the GreenBiz.com story, "soon" is about two years from now.
The lack of labeling requirements could change if legislation introduced by Sen. Al Franken becomes law. The Household Product Labeling Act would require household cleaning products "and similar products" to completely and accurately state
on their labels all of their ingredients. I don't know what the chances are of such a bill actually passing—big corporations generally wail, "But we'll go out of business if we have to share our proprietary secrets!" and then the case is closed—but if mainstream giants like SC Johnson are voluntarily listing ingredients (albeit sluggishly for some important ones) and not going out of business, that's a major positive step.
Say you consider yourself a conscious consumer (and I suspect that many readers do). When given a choice between a traditional product and its greener counterpart, you buy the latter. Now, what if it turned out that you'd been misled about the sustainability of all but a few of your purchases?
That's pretty much the conclusion of "The Seven Sins of Greenwashing," published by Canadian firm TerraChoice: 98 percent of so-called natural or environmentally friendly products sold in the U.S. make false or misleading claims. The report garnered lots of headlines echoing its indignation when it came out earlier this year, and another wave of media attention came earlier this month in the wake of a congressional hearing on defining fair
green-marketing practices (TerraChoice vice president M. Scot Case was among the witnesses who
I think it's helpful, however, to think about the difference between marketing hype and out-and-out deceit. The greenwashing "sins" enumerated by TerraChoice's report include not only lies (like the supposedly Energy Star-approved refrigerator Case himself bought that wasn't) and the use of fictional third-party certification logos—in other words, deliberate disinformation—but also things like vagueness (claims that are "poorly defined or broad") and irrelevance (like proclaiming a product is "CFC-free" despite the fact that CFCs are banned by law).
I'm not so sure that those last two examples amount to greenwashing so much as they amount to greenhyping (if I may coin the term). I go back and forth on this, but recently I've begun to lean toward a stricter definition of "greenwash," in part because of sustainable-business guru Joel Makower's thoughts on the subject.
The way I figure, all kinds of products make all kinds of exaggerated claims. For example, this post in comedian Jennifer Dziura's blog points to a shampoo that says it gives hair a "mirror-like shine." If that were even possible, she writes, mightn't the product's maker incur some criminal liability for making looking at people's hair "equivalent to staring directly at the sun"?
Such hyperbole in traditional products is unfortunate, but the fact is, we're so used to it that most of us don't even give it a second thought. There's no reason we can't apply the same skepticism to products in the green marketplace. In fact, in many cases we already do. I'm reminded of this bag (at left) that I got at some grocery store or other. Not only did I laugh at the contention that the piece of brown paper in my hand could "save our planet" but I also knew perfectly well that the environment would have been better served if I'd remembered to bring a reusable sack from home. Greenwashing? Meh. Greenhyping? Definitely.
It's worth reading Makower's take
on the "Seven Sins" report. He points out that it's
hard to know what percentage of sins in the 2,000-plus products examined by
TerraChoice are what he'd consider justified criticisms and what amount to "nit-picking" on the part of the authors, because the report is guilty of the same lack of transparency it complains about in some of the products it analyzed. "There are no products named, no
sinners shamed," Makower writes. (To which I say: That's probably because TerraChoice is an environmental marketing company. Since it makes money by
helping companies become greener, it wouldn't necessarily be in its
interests to name names.)
I'm not trying to completely diss "The Seven Sins of Greenwashing"—in fact, I find its categorization of the different ways green marketing can go astray quite useful—I'm just saying its big takeaway comes across as a bit sensationalist. If every instance of greenhyping gets lumped into the "greenwashing" category, that has the effect of drowning out the true crimes.
Think your "green" soap is squeaky-clean? Maybe not. The California Attorney General's Office has filed a complaint against four makers of green-branded personal-care and cleaning products, stating that they are violating the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 (Proposition 65)—and the state's unfair-competition law, to boot.
Products made by Avalon Organics (owner of the Alba brand), Beaumont (Citrus Magic), NutriBiotic, and Whole Foods (specifically, its private-label brand, 365) were recently found to contain the toxic contaminant 1,4 dioxane (which I've blogged about before). The AG's suit states that the companies have known that their products were exposing users to 1,4-dioxane since late May of 2004, yet they did not provide "a clear and reasonable warning," as required by law. Violations of the safety law and the unfair-competition law each carry penalties of $2,500 a day.
1,4-dioxane is not an ingredient per se but rather a by-product of a process called ethoxylation.
Citrus Magic 100% Natural Dish Liquid is the product with by far the highest level of the contaminant (97.1 parts per million), according to the Organic Consumers Association's study (whose results, according to my sources, were confirmed by tests the AG's office had done). NutriBiotic's Super Shower Gel Shampoo with GSE was found to contain 32.2ppm, Alba's Passion Fruit Body Wash contains 18.2ppm, and Whole Foods' 365 Everyday Value Shower Gel contains 20.1ppm.
Some contend that a little bit of dioxane probably isn't anything to worry about (specifically, TreeHugger writer Karin Kloosterman in this post, and Ecover, whose dishwashing liquid was found to have 2.4ppm). For context, I looked at the EPA's webpage on the chemical. There, I learned that 500ppm is the ceiling recommended by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to avoid "immediate damage to life or health," and that according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 100ppm is the concentration to which most workers can be exposed without adverse effects "over a normal 8-h workday or a 40-h workweek" (which? I wondered).
One can't help but observe that 100ppm is pretty close to the 97.1ppm in Citrus Magic... but fortunately, even with my exacting standards, I don't (quite) spend eight hours a day scrubbing our dishes.
Last Friday was a bad day for the natural-products industry. At the sector’s
ExpoWest trade show, it was announced that a new study found a number of
supposedly “natural” and “organic” body-care and cleaning products contain a
nasty chemical called 1,4-dioxane (which the EPA classifies as a “probable
human carcinogen”) that you won’t see on the ingredients list. (You can read
the L.A. Times’ coverage of it here.)
Giovanni Organic Cosmetics, Jason (whose slogan is “Pure, Natural &
Organic”), Kiss My Face, Nature’s Gate, and Seventh Generation were among the
leading brands called out in the study, which was commissioned by the
Organic Consumers Association.
To Seventh Generation’s credit, it has said that it intends to “completely eliminate 1,4-dioxane from
all of our products.”
A couple months ago I blogged about learning that a lotion I’ve used for years contains toxins.
But that was a conventional product. Wouldn’t you think that skin softeners
with the words “natural” and “organic” would tend to be clean? Look at the
study’s product list (pdf) and see for yourself.
Some people will probably say, Sure, this chemical isn’t ideal, but we’re
talking parts per million here—how bad can that be? But as Adam Eidinger of the
Organic Consumer Association pointed out to me, the EPA’s standard for safe
drinking water is 3 parts per billion. “Granted, you’re not drinking
these things, but you are putting them down the drain and introducing it into
the environment,” he said. Not to mention absorbing their ingredients through your skin (pdf).
Here are some tips from the OCA on how to avoid 1,4-dioxane.
December 2010 I haven't actually bought anything from Po-Zu yet, but I appreciate their awareness of the fact that many vegan shoes are made of petroleum products and aren't necessarily better for the environment than leather footwear. Po-Zu seems to set a high bar for itself when it comes to ingredients and supply chains.
March 2010 After running out of dish soap, I started using our good old bars of Sappo Hill out of necessity. But you know what? Our dishes are just as clean, and when I pick up the soap at our grocery store, the only packaging on the bars is the price tag. And did I mention the soap is awesome? We love the oatmeal bar.
February 2010 TMI alert: If you're a squeamish guy, read no further. I'm done with tampons! Instead, I'm using the DivaCup.
January 2010 Mr. Wallet Mouth and I both love Pact. Its underwear is made of organic cotton, and the company donates 10% of its sales to worthy environmental causes. Not only that, but the company is serious about eco-friendly packaging. Each pair of undies comes not in a plastic bag but in a little cloth pouch made from fabric remnants. I'm also impressed with how responsive Pact is over email; when I asked a packaging question, I got a nice reply from the CEO.
December 2009 After reading about Skoy Cloths, the biodegradable paper-towel alternative, on Fake Plastic Fish, I bought a bunch for stocking stuffers and my own kitchen, and I'm now a fan. They're lasting a long time, despite repeated washings in the laundry, and they arrive with minimal packaging.
October 2009 I was already of fan of Straus yogurt (see June 2007), but now I love it even more. According to Michael Straus, a son of the company's founder, Straus yogurt "is made, cooled, and set in stainless-steel vats, unlike most yogurts, which are poured while still hot into plastic cups to cool and set." As someone who's concerned about plastics and chemical safety, I'm happy to hear that!
July 2009 I'm using a lot more baking soda now that I'm making more of an effort to clean the house in a nontoxic way. But from now on I'll be buying Bob's Red Mill, since Arm & Hammer engages in animal testing.
July 2008 Started feeling extra-good about buying one of my fave meat substitutes, Tofurky, after learning that its maker, Turtle Island Foods, is an independent, family-owned company (Unlike Boca Foods, which is a subsidiary of Kraft, and Morningstar, which is owned by Kellogg).
April 2008 I'm going to start buying my canned beans from Eden Foods, for two reasons: it uses custom-made cans that don't contain bisphenol A, and it's an independent, family-operated company.
February 2008 From now on, whenever I order takeout or ask for a doggy bag, I’ll make sure to avoid #6 polystyrene containers (and, of course, Styrofoam).