An environmentally-conscious way of thinking and behaving is more and more prevalent in modern society. We have realized that our actions often have profound negative effects on the world around us, and many of us wish to change that. But what can we do as individuals? Green products can offer a part of the solution.
Even the most conservative consumers do, in fact, still consume. We all do. We consume products in every part of our life; water, food, travel, furniture, appliances, medicine, and more. If we all change our consumption habits to include more environmentally friendly green products, it can add up to a huge change.
But what does “green” really mean? How can we be sure a product is actually green? And which green products are the most worth investing in? Let’s start with understanding the term itself.
What “Green” Really Means
“Green” falls into a category of many emerging buzz-words in the age of environmentalism. Others include: “Earth Friendly, Eco-Conscious, Sustainable, Biodegradable, Nontoxic, Natural, and Organic.” Some of these have no regulated or legal definitions at all, and others likely do not mean what you think they mean.
Similarly, “green” merely describes products which generally have less environmental impacts or are less detrimental to human health than other equivalent products. But products affect the environment in a number of different ways throughout their “life cycle,” from production to consumption to disposal. Thus, “green” cannot have one single characteristic which applies to all products.
Rather, a green product usually involves making trade-offs between various environmental impacts of a product in an attempt to reduce the overall impact. Some green products focus on using recycled materials, others on using renewable energy sources in manufacturing, and others on using local resources or being free of certain environmentally-harmful chemicals. While it is impossible to completely erase all impacts, green products can reduce them with targeted changes.
Sorting Through the Multitude of Green Product Labels
Due to this wide range of specific intentions and goals of green products, various certifications exist to provide you as a consumer with the assurance that the product you are buying provides the specific benefits it claims. The result is that there are over 200 labels and certifications for green products, each focusing on particular green attributes of given products.
A full list of all ecolabels both in the US and abroad can be found at http://www.ecolabelindex.com/ecolabels. This immense list can be overwhelming. And many labels are first-party, made by the manufacturers themselves, essentially equating to unverified self-declaration of supposed greenness. The goal is to determine which labels are the most reliable.
The labels below represent some of the most common and reliable third-party verified green product labels in the US to help you be confident your choice in product has the most positive impact:
Certifications for green products addressing multiple-attributes:
- An independent nonprofit, Green Seal uses science-based testing to identify sustainable products.
- Requires concentrated products, prohibits harmful chemicals and carcinogens, limits volatile organic compound (VOC) content, specifies sustainable packaging, and guarantees similar product performance compared to other conventional products.
- The GS-37 Standard is Green Seal’s Standard for general cleaning products in industrial buildings such as schools.
- Refers to a set of voluntary, life-cycle based environmental certifications.
- Means that a product has undergone rigorous scientific testing.
- Similar to Green Seal, UL EcoLogo requires concentrated products, prohibits harmful chemicals and carcinogens, limits volatile organic compound (VOC) content, specifies sustainable packaging, and guarantees similar product performance compared to other conventional products.
- Commonly found in green cleaning mandates for schools and government facilities.
- A life-cycle based assessment of sustainability for products and services in various industries.
- Evaluates product design, manufacturing, long-term value, end-of-life management, corporate governance, and innovation.
Certifications for green products addressing specific attributes:
EPA Safer Choice (previously known as Design for the Environment)
- Helps consumers identify and select products with safer chemical ingredients that maintain performance compared to conventional products.
- Requires full ingredient disclosures as well as meeting toxicity standards for environmental and human hazards.
Carpet & Rug Institute Seal of Approval (CRI SOA)
- Specifically certifies carpet cleaning systems, solutions and products, as well as vacuum cleaners and extractors, for effectiveness and dust containment.
- Additionally, their Green Label Plus program certifies carpet, adhesives, and cushions to ensure low levels of emissions.
Sustainable Forestry Initiative FSI
Covers protection of biodiversity, at-risk species, wildlife habitats, sustainable harvest, water quality, and prompt regeneration.
USDA Certified Biobased
Provides accreditation for products with demonstrated biobased content from renewable biological sources.
The certified label must list the percentage of biobased content.
Requires all paper and plastic products be manufactured with materials recovered or diverted from the solid waste stream.
Process Chlorine Free
Evaluates products on the basis of chlorine usage to identify those without the corrosive chemical.
Forest Stewardship Council
Promotes responsible management of forests.
Certifies energy efficiency of appliances.
Ensures water efficiency.
Verifies GMO avoidance.
Reduces chemical emissions.
Other Specifics to Keep an Eye Out For
Apart from official certifications, you can also be proactive in determining for yourself if products are safe and green. Certain qualities of products such as containers and chemical ingredients can be checked for without knowing the entire background of the product.
As far as containers, you want to avoid disposable and/or plastic containers. Look for products which come in ultra high concentrations that can then be diluted to fill refillable containers. For disposable containers, look for those made from recycled, reclaimed, local, sustainable, or biodegradable material.
Local sourcing of all materials, containers and otherwise, reduces the energy and resources needed for transporting them longer distances. And biodegradability helps prevent environmental damage after disposal, but be sure claims are specific. For example, “biodegradable in 2 years” is better than just “biodegradable” in an indefinite amount of time.
The ideal green ingredients should be healthy for use around people and not harm the environment, while still remaining effective. Typically, the simpler the ingredients and shorter the ingredient list, the better. In fact, simple substances such as vinegar, baking soda, and essential oils are perfectly suited for getting jobs such as cleaning done without adverse health or environmental effects.
When evaluating chemical ingredients, it is important to know that ingredients are not legally required to be disclosed on cleaning products. Cleaning products which disclose them anyway give you the power of information and the assurance that the product has nothing to hide. If a product does not list the ingredients, you can also contact the manufacturer directly to obtain this information.
Ingredients to Avoid
Given that you can determine the ingredients in a product, there are a few that you should avoid when looking for green products.
Fragrances and dyes not only provide no functional improvement to products, but also have grave potential to harm our health. Phthalates, found in many fragranced products, are endocrine disruptors which cause negative hormonal effect upon extended exposure. If a product does not list all ingredients but lists “fragrance,” it most likely contains phthalates. Added dyes for color are similarly unnecessary and are being increasingly investigated for connections to cancer and various disorders.
Perchloroethylene, or “PERC”, is found in dry-cleaning solutions, spot removers, and carpet cleaners. It is a neurotoxin which the EPA classifies as a “possible carcinogen” and has ordered to be phased out of residential buildings by 2020.
On the environmental side, phosphates cause eutrophication of rivers and other bodies of water. This depletes the oxygen content, decreasing water quality and harming wildlife. Cleaners and personal care products such as shampoo frequently contain phosphates.
Other harmful chemicals are Triclosan, as well as Quarternary Ammonium Compounds (QUATS) found in antibacterial detergents and soaps. Due to their antibacterial properties, they promote growth of drug-resistant bacteria that threaten the health of all life.
Whatever green product you are using, it is important to maintain awareness and use third-party verification when possible to validate its reputation. Awareness and vigilance are critical in making sure your efforts towards being healthy and environmentally conscious have a positive impact.
7 Important Parts of a Cleaning Product Label. (2018, February 8) Retrieved from https://www.thespruce.com/parts-of-a-cleaning-product-label-1900744
8 Hidden Toxins: What’s Lurking in Your Cleaning Products? (2011, October) Retrieved from https://experiencelife.com/article/8-hidden-toxins-whats-lurking-in-your-cleaning-products/
About Eco-Labels. Retrieved from http://greenguard.org/en/consumers/consumers_aboutEcolabels.aspx
How to Identify Greener Products: Certification Eco-Labels, Standards, Ratings, etc. (2014, December 26) Retrieved from https://www.thegreenspotlight.com/2014/12/how-to-identify-greener-products-certification-ecolabels/
The Truth about ‘Green’ Cleaning Products (2007, August 6) Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/1737-truth-green-cleaning-products.html
There is No Such Thing as a Green Product. (2016, Spring) Retrieved from https://ssir.org/articles/entry/there_is_no_such_thing_as_a_green_product
Toxicology of Food Dyes. (2012, September 18) Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23026007
What is a Green Product? (2011, December 9) Retrieved from http://www.isustainableearth.com/green-products/what-is-a-green-product
This is very useful information. Thank you very much for putting it together!