Raising eco-consciousness one week at a time

Friday, March 25, 2011

Cutting through the greenwashing of cleaning products

Last week we gave you the scoop on how to make your own non-toxic cleaners, but if that’s a little too Eco-Martha Stewart for you, store-bought eco-friendly cleaning products are the next best thing.

In a perfect eco-conscious world, we’d have a unified, regulated system of labels and claims that would tell us which cleaning products are bad for us and the earth and which ones aren’t (or, better yet, it would be flat-out illegal to sell such super toxic products in the first place!).

But, that is not the case. And with so many companies jumping on the “green” bandwagon, it’s become a chore for consumers to figure out which claims are legitimately earth-friendly and which are just greenwash (forgive the pun).

Nonetheless, there are a few guiding principles we can follow to do our best in figuring out the best products without calling a chemist. Here are some guidelines we follow.

Tips for Deciphering Product Labels

Don’t assume the green claims made on products are legitimate. The words “natural,” “herbal,” “green,” “eco-friendly,” are just adjectives, generically and randomly used. Even the terms “biodegradable” and “non-toxic” are not regulated by the government or any other entity and essentially mean nothing. The word “organic” can also be slapped on any label but won’t mean anything unless it’s certified by the USDA, Oregon Tilth, or QAI. Consumer Reports’ Eco-Labels website has thorough explanations of what some of these terms could mean if they are verified by a third party.

Don’t trust products that don’t disclose all ingredients.
Companies have no legal obligations to print all the ingredients contained in their products, and the ones who DO disclose that information are showing they have nothing to hide. Check out 12 ingredients you should always avoid.

Don’t trust general and vague claims.
Truly earth-friendly cleaners have very specific claims about their products’ greenness. For instance, “contains no chlorine, ammonia, strong acids, or petroleum-based ingredients” is much more viable a claim than “natural, biodegradable, organic.”

Products labeled “disinfectant” or “anti-bacterial” are not any more effective than cleaning products that do not have those labels. In the past few years, the use of these terms has exploded as companies have tried to convince consumers that regular, non-anti-bacterial soaps and cleaners don’t kill germs and bacteria. Not true. In fact, studies have shown that many products labeled “anti-bacterial” and “disinfectant” are actually less effective than those without those claims. Plus (here’s some scary news), according to a 2000 report by the World Health Organization, these anti-bacterial products are contributing to the rise of drug-resistant bacteria (similar to what’s happening with the overuse of antibiotics!). Bottom line: Most, if not all, everyday cleaning needs can be met with regular cleaners that don’t make these disinfectant and anti-bacterial claims. Check out this handy cleaning and sanitizing brochure for more information on when you need to sanitize vs. clean your home.

Do trust companies that make it their mission, as an organization, to make products that benefit people, animals and the planet. And this brings us to…   

Truly Earth-Friendly Companies You Can Trust

Seventh Generation CEO Jeffrey Hollender might have said it best when he said, in response to Clorox’s new Green Works products: "'Green' is not something a company becomes because of a new product line, a marketing campaign, a decision to be carbon neutral or even the selection of an enlightened new CEO. 'Green' is about the inside, not the outside of a company. It’s about its DNA, its culture, and its very reason for being."

Annnd, we agree. Here are some products and companies we love.

Seventh Generation, perhaps the largest and most well-known green cleaning products company, discloses all their ingredients, has proven the effectiveness of its products with scientific research, and has an incredibly informative website with answers to just about any question you might have about their products or green cleaning in general. Plus, their bottles are made of 90% post-consumer recycled plastic!

biokleen cleaners are reasonably priced and effective. The company specializes in concentrated cleaners which help you save money and reduce packaging. Check out more about their mission here. We especially like their laundry detergent and dishwashing soap.

Ecover is another great and effective product. They’ve won a plethora of awards for the environmental sustainability of their products and outline their eco-mission on their website. Check out their Cream Scrub for super bathroom cleaning power.

And last but not least, we LOVE Bon Ami’s Powder Cleanser. It’s great on tough food stains, bathroom grime and has loads of other uses, like cleaning porcelain or polishing silver.

BONUS: All of these companies are also cruelty-free, i.e. they don’t test on animals! (Whodathunkit? Sarcasm…)

Next week, we’ll talk more about the lack of government regulation of harmful chemicals and how you can take action on a greater scale.

So, have you tried these products? What brands do you love? Let us know below!


  1. Nice blog. Good to get the facts out about cleaning products. You should check out Shaklee cleaning products. They are sold in bulk concentrated formulas through dealers with reusable /refillable bottles for dilution and application. They've been around forever and are entirely plant based. Recently converted our house almost exclusively to Shaklee products and am beyond impressed with the quality, performance, and affordability. Literally pennies per each bottle I refill. You only need to use such small amounts and it is really effective. Plus the bulk formulas and refillable bottles add an extra green factor. Curious what you think of Shaklee.

  2. I love Bon Ami. My mom used it when I was a kid, and won't use anything else when cleaning pots/pans and the sink. Thanks for posting. I'm surprised it's so hard to find in big stores, but it's always at Vitamin Cottage. True cleaning staple and doesn't scratch!!!

  3. Sure there are some which are not green when they claim to be so.But not all are hoax and bad...there are some good green cleaning products too. Anyhow cleaning is very important with whatever agent.

  4. You have a very good blog that the main thing a lot of interesting and useful!

  5. If you're health conscious, love simplicity, and care about the environment, then you want SoapBerries Laundry Detergent. safe cleaning products

  6. Truly a very good post for general awareness,,Thanks

    General Cleaning

  7. When I used to work as a cleaner, in many homes I had to use Ecover and at the beginning I didn't like their products, but as I used them more and more, I started loving them. Now in my home I only use those products and I can say they are really great.