When I first started out trying to remove toxic chemicals from my home, I was immediately attracted to brands like Method, Seventh Generation, and Mrs. Meyers. Their pretty packaging and eco-savvy marketing convinced me that their products were the solution my eager beaver self was looking for. I thought for sure they were the safest choice for us because it said right on the packaging that it was natural! Wrong.
I was greenwashed.
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing happens when companies make false claims or overly generous health or environmental benefits that their product or service offers. Greenwashing is not confined exclusively to the cleaning industry, but it is prevalent in large part because household cleaners are the only household products where manufacturers are not required to list all ingredients under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act.
In 2010 the environmental consulting firm TerraChoice Group produced a report called “The Sins of Greenwashing” In it the group found more than 95% of consumer products claiming ot be green were fond to commit one of the "sins of greenwashing,” like making an environmental claim that may be truthful but unimportant. “CFC-free,” for example, is a common one, since CFCs are banned by law.
Figuring out whether products are actually environmentally friendly can be challenging since companies don't have to post the ingredients on cleaning products. When reading labels, look for something specific, like “biodegradable in three to five days” rather than just “biodegradable” (because almost everything breaks down over time!). Do a search for the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for a product you use or are considering. The MSDS will specify the active ingredients, which can then be researched for health hazards. Two useful sites you can start with are the US Department of Health's Product Database and the Environmental Working Group's database.
Fragrances are a perfect example. They are considered “trade secrets”, which is fancy talk for: their ingredients don’t have to be included on the packaging. Many synthetic fragrances include chemicals that have been linked with reproductive health and developmental problems such as birth defects, low sperm count and ADHD. Even at the most basic level, synthetic fragrances are known to trigger asthma and allergy attacks. When you see “fragrance” on an ingredients list, just put that right back on the shelf where you found it.
Because manufacturers can just omit ingredients from packaging, this makes it very hard for us as consumers to interpret false claims (greenwashing) such as non-toxic, biodegradable and eco-friendly.
Take the 3 cabinet challenge-pick any 3 cabinets in your home and flip over the products in there. Take a long, hard look at the ingredients on the back of the things you use most often, and do your research using the resources above. How many greenwashed products did you find? Did you learn anything about the things you are putting on your skin and using around your home?
Learning to read the ingredients on the things you buy is the first step to making better choices. Once you know better, you do better, and its hard to go back when you find out what all those harsh chemicals can actually do to you.