Everyone wants to make healthy choices and use non-toxic, environmentally friendly products that benefit the earth rather than harm it. Choosing between natural home cleaners and toxic ones seems like an easy decision. In principle it is, but in practice, it’s harder than it should be. Why? Because of greenwashing.
WHAT IS GREENWASHING?
Greenwashing is the practice of using unsubstantiated or misleading claims relating to the positive environmental benefits of a product. What is worse is that greenwashing preys on the willingness of consumers to do the right thing and use their dollars to support companies that they think share their values.
In the cleaning industry, greenwashing is not only dishonest but can cause harm to consumer health and is even harder to spot because of weak product labelling laws.
HOW TO ESCAPE CLEANING PRODUCT GREENWASHING
Brands can say (almost) whatever they want about their cleaning products in order to sell them. There is nothing wrong with promoting products as environmentally friendly - as long as they actually are! The unfortunate reality is that many companies using these messages shouldn’t be.
This is where third-parties come to the rescue. Companies can say many things about their products, but the purpose of third-party certification is to assure consumers that the products they have approved comply with their standard benchmark.
Two terms that are fairly well-regulated by third-parties are:
The use of the term “organic” is monitored closely by the Canada Organic Regime but unfortunately their federal standards only apply to food products. Non-food products can be certified by third-parties such as USDA Organic or Canada Organic, however it can be complicated for cleaners to qualify with certifications that require a specific percentage of product ingredients to be organic.
This is because the term “organic” can only be applied to agricultural produce, so some ingredients such as naturally occurring minerals don’t qualify. These ingredients are often the ones that make a cleaning product effective (such as surfactants and emulsifiers) and do not have effective organic replacements.
If a cleaning product makes an organic claim, check to see how this claim is communicated. There are standards for communicating the organic contents of a product (eg. “100% organic” vs “made with organic ingredients”). Check to see if the product’s organic labelling makes an attempt to comply with the standards set for their organic content claims.
Cruelty-free was once an unregulated term with many companies even designing their own bunny logos. In response, the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics (CCIC) agreed to promote a single comprehensive standard and an internationally recognized Leaping Bunny Logo which indicates that a product abides by their animal welfare standard.
The meaning of other terms, however, isn’t crystal clear.
“Green” or “Eco”
Take these claims with a BIG grain of salt. There are no strict regulatory bodies governing the use of these terms. You can look for third-party logos such as Ecocert, Green Seal or EcoLogo that verifies the genuine practice of environmental respect in the formulation and manufacturing of a product. For example, a product with an Ecocert logo (an internationally recognized certification body) must list all ingredients on the product label and favour renewable resources among many other standards.
Again, the term natural is essentially meaningless. It could mean that a product is partially or fully natural. The only way to know is to look at the ingredients list (if they are all listed) and check to see if they are actually natural.
Fragrance is one of the most opaque terms you can find on a product label. This is because historically, a product’s fragrance was considered proprietary or trade secret information, so the ingredients that make up a fragrance in a product don’t need to be disclosed. The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) ‘Guide to Healthy Cleaning’ found that ingredients linked to fragrances are toxic and can act as allergens.
MIND THE KNOWLEDGE GAP
Many cleaning product manufacturers promote and benefit from the knowledge gap between themselves and their customers. They make it hard to make informed, responsible choices and hide their own destructive choices with misleading advertising - particularly by using unregulated “greenwash” messages.
When it comes to food, you know what you’re getting thanks to government-mandated ingredient lists. But cleaning products don’t require the same transparency. What is worse is that most ingredients in chemical cleaners have long, complex names (you know, like ethylene glycol monobutyl ether?) that consumers are less likely to recognize and understand which are harmful, even if they are able to find out what the ingredients are!
This makes it easier for crafty marketers to pull tricks on conscious consumers.
STAY OUT OF THE GREENWASH WITH EWG
We recently wrote about the Environmental Working Group’s ‘Guide to healthy Cleaning’ and their findings relating to the safety of household kitchen cleaners and how you can use the EWG guide to help make more informed decisions.
What is shocking is the number of products rated with a C or lower that use the words “green” or “natural” so it would be completely understandable for a consumer to assume that these products aren’t harming the environment. This is where a resource such as EWG’s ‘Guide to Healthy Cleaning’ can help evaluate an entire product for you. Read our blog to find out how to check the EWG rating of your products.
Choosing to have a healthy, safe home shouldn’t require a degree in chemistry. And the industry shouldn’t be set up to take advantage of people who want to do the right thing by their health and the environment. By using the EWG guides and understanding third-party certifications, consumers can make more informed choices, support companies with like values and stay out of the murky greenwash.