Have you ever been staring at an eco-friendly product with a bunch of labels on it thinking, “What the hell do these mean?” Well, you’re not alone.

There are so many labels on products these days that it is tough to decipher what green labels are valid, and what green labels are phooey (excuse the technical term).

I would like to know what labels actually have meaning (are actually certified) and which labels are just greenwashing.

I hope that by the end of this article, you (and I) will know what labels are worth looking out for and what labels are less than desirable (I’m trying to be nice here).

Let’s Get Started!

I’m going to be as thorough as possible, without being too boring (I hope!).

So sit back, grab a coffee and get ready to learn about green product labels!

Alright, ready? And……we’re off!

Whoops, hold on. Change of plans here.

Ok, I’m not going to lie. When I first thought of doing an article on green labels, I thought I would research each label and figure out if it was valid or not.

Well, upon my research frenzy, I quickly realized that there are HUNDREDS of labels. Literally hundreds.

I figured that no one would read and absorb information on hundreds of product labels. I know I wouldn’t. I’d be clicking out faster than you could say “green”.

The New Plan

What I thought I would do instead is explain the labels that you should be looking for in a product. 

There is a better chance of remembering a few labels that are valid, rather than a few hundred to ignore. At least in my opinion. I shouldn’t generalize though, maybe you would like to read about hundreds of different product labels, if so check out ECOLABEL INDEX.

Green Cleaner Labels

Let’s start with Eco-Friendly labels for Green cleaning products. I’d like to give a shout out to the city of Portland, Oregon for their great information about green labels.

Green Seal

  • An independendent non-profit organization founded in 1989
  • Develops Environmental Leadership Standards
  • Standards are credible and transparent
  • Ensures that a product has met rigorous performance, health, and environmental criteria

ECOLOGO

  • UL Environment developed this third-party environmental standard
  • Products, services, and packaging are certified for reduced environmental impact
  • Products undergo rigorous scientific testing and/or auditing to prove their compliance

GREENGUARD

  • UL Environment created this certification as well
  • Certifies that products designed for indoor spaces meet strict chemical emission limits
  • Certification ensures manufacturers claims are backed with scientific data from a third-party organization

Safer Choice

  • Developed by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)
  • Products must pass stringent criteria: ingredients, product performance, pH, and packaging
  • Once a product meets  criteria, it is audited annually to ensure standards continue to be met
These are only a few of the Eco-friendly labels you will encounter in your local cleaning aisle. However, they have a few things in common that make them credible, valid eco-logos.

What To Look For In An Eco-logo

Here is a  handy list of questions to keep in the back of your mind when scratching your head, wondering what product you should choose.

  1. Is it backed by trusted organizations?
  2. Are claims verified by an independent third party?
  3. Is the label based on a set of reliable standards that are readily accessible to the public?
  4. Does the manufacturer have any ties to the organization behind the seal?

If you are unable to answer these questions with the information provided on the label, pull out your phone and have a google.

You want PROOF!

Written Claims

While visual labels help us determine which products are truly green, manufacturers also like to use words to tell us green they are.

Half the battle is figuring out what exactly these wordy claims mean and whether or not they are valid or just a marketing ploy.

With help from my friends at the Environmental Worker’s Group,  I will clarify these words and give them a ‘green’ meaning.

Ok, let’s go!

Active Ingredient

  • usually antimicrobial pesticides
  • avoid these products

Antibacterial

  • contains pesticides that kill bacteria
  • avoid these products

Biodegradable

  • ingredients break down in the environment
  • unregulated term
  • some ingredients biodegrade harmlessly
  • others linger in the environment for years
  • some decompose into harmful contaminants

Chlorine-free/Bleach alternative

  • do not contain chlorine bleach
  • may contain oxygen bleach
  • both kinds of bleach are irritating or corrosive
  • chlorine bleach can release trace of harmful chlorine gas which could cause asthma or other respiratory issues with prolonged use
  • use a chlorine-free alternative when choosing a bleach

Combustible/Flammable

  • substance easily ignites and can burn quickly
  • store product away from heat sources

Corrosive/Caustic

  • a substance which can cause serious chemical burns to the skin, eyes, or lungs
  • common products are bleach, oven, and drain cleaners

Design for the Environment

  • voluntary program overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • the purpose is to make products that are safer for people and the environment
  • manufacturers must formulate products with ingredients that meet specific standards in order to carry the Design for the Environment Seal
  • this program is not perfect, as it allows for some chemicals that are concerning to be included in the certification

Enzymes

  • proteins added to cleaners to help break down and remove stains
  • don’t assume they are safe because they are natural

Essential oils

  • plant extracts
  • contain naturally occurring chemicals that can irritate skin, trigger an allergic reaction or cause other toxic effects
  • don’t assume they are safe because they come from plants

Fragrance or scent

  • added fragrances are unnecessary and can provoke allergic reactions
  • the product contains a chemical cocktail of dozens of substances for which there is limited safety data
  • avoid these products

Free & Clear/ free from perfumes and dyes

  • do not contain fragrance or dyes
  • some products contain a scent to mask the smell of other ingredients
  • usually a better bet then products with fragrance added

Inert

  • non-pesticide ingredients in antibacterial cleaning supplies
  • does not mean the product is safe
  • inert substances can include petroleum-derived substances, preservative or fragrances
  • these ingredients can be irritating to the skin and respiratory system or cause long-term adverse health effects
  • try and choose products that list all of their ingredients, that way you can determine what the ‘inert’ substance is and make an informed decision

Irritant

  • a substance that causes temporary inflammation of the skin, eyes or lungs
  • use protective clothing when handling

Natural/Plant-based

  • no regulation of these words use
  • natural does not mean a product is safer or environmentally friendly
  • look for a third-party certification on the label to verify the claim

Non-toxic

  • the product will not harm human health or the environment
  • there is no standard definition for cleaning products
  • not helpful when choosing the safest cleaners

Optical brightener

  • found in some laundry detergents
  • can cause skin irritation
  • do not break down easily and can accumulate in the environment
  • avoid these products

Organic

  • implies that ingredients are from plants grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides
  • look for the USDA Organic logo on the product to verify claim

Pesticide

  • added to cleaners to kill bacteria, viruses or mold
  • can be harmful to people, animals, and the environment
  • avoid the product if possible

Phosphate-free

  • was commonly found in laundry and dishwashing detergents
  • can trigger harmful algae blooms in rivers, lakes, and oceans
  • banned in most states
  • phosphate-free claim is meaningless because few detergents still contain phosphates

Sensitizing

  • ingredients can cause an immune response, typically an allergic reaction or asthma attack with repeat exposure
  • avoid when possible

Solvent

  • a liquid that keeps other ingredients mixed in a solution
  • water is a non-toxic solvent
  • some solvents are flammable and release volatile organic compounds into the air
  • can cause respiratory impairment, neurological damage, reproductive and developmental harm, and cancer
  • avoid if possible

Surfactant

  • chemicals that loosen dirt and grease from surfaces so they can be washed away
  • essential for cleaning
  • some are safer than others

Toxic

  • any chemical or mixture that may be harmful to the environment or human health if inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin
  • many cleaning products contain toxic substances
  • try and stick to cleaners that disclose all their ingredients so you can make an informed decision

Volatile organic compounds

  • VOC’s are air contaminants that form smog
  • use no or low-VOC cleaning supplies whenever possible

Wow! Buying a truly eco-friendly product will be so easy now!

I hope you noted my sarcasm there.

Well, even with certifications in place, it is not that easy to buy a green product and have confidence that it is, in fact, a truly green product.

Researching for this article was definitely a learning experience for me. So if you feel overwhelmed and uncertain of all the purchases you have made to date, you are not alone!

Now, I don’t expect you to read this article 100 times and memorize it (but if you want to, go for it!). So I will summarize the main takeaways in hopes that you (and I) can remember them for the next time you are shopping for an eco-friendly product.

Summary

For visual labels, claims need to be verified by a third-party organization (NOT related in any way to the manufacturer).

For written claims, you as a consumer, have to do your due diligence when considering a product to purchase.

Most claims written on products are not regulated, so basically the manufacturer can state whatever they want about a product without the need to prove it

So what can be done about this? There are a few things you can do.

  1. Look for products that reveal all of their ingredients on the label
  2. Google any ingredients you’re not familiar with
  3. Look for an independent third-party organization label that verifies the claim

I hope this was informative and helpful. Being as informed as possible about your purchases will increase your chances of buying a truly eco-friendly product.

Please leave me a comment and let me know if you have any questions, concerns, constructive criticism, or anything else. Now go have a nap, you earned it if you made it this far!

 

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