Understanding "Green" Product Labels

How do you decide which cleaning products to use in your home? Clearly the effectiveness of the products we use is important, but what about their impact on the environment?
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By Jacqueline Cadogan, Marketing Operations Manager, Women & Co.

How do you decide which cleaning products to use in your home? Clearly the effectiveness of the products we use is important, but what about their impact on the environment? In my own personal life, I do my best to avoid purchasing products with wasteful packaging. I buy my cleaning supplies in bulk and, whenever possible, I choose concentrated products that require less packaging. But, until now, I'd never really considered how the chemicals I use affect the environment and the people I care about. Are you interested in "green" cleaning? Here's what I learned.

When I took a closer look at "green" products, I found that they're often certified with labels claiming a certain level of eco-friendliness, such as Green Seal and Ecologo. From laundry care products to reusable bags, these certifications indicate that the labeled products meet specified environmental standards.

Not All Certifications Are Created Equally
But what do these certifications mean exactly? Each different certification has a unique standard of environmental friendliness. So how do you know what's what? According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), some of the common claims that are made in the marketing of cleaning products do not have clearly defined standards, requiring us as consumers to interpret the terms. How do you know which claims are reliable and which aren't? Keep reading.

Defining Characteristics
Thanks to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines, environmental claims made on product labels need to be backed with cold, hard, scientific facts. You can search the terms used on "green" product labels in the EPA's Terminology Services Terms & Acronyms search tool. Here are some of the most broadly-used terms in "green" products defined:

• Biodegradability: Biodegradability is the capability of a substance to break down into simpler substances, especially into innocuous products, by the actions of living organisms.

• Environmentally Preferable Product: These products and services have a lesser or reduced effect on human health and the environment when compared to other products and services that serve the same purpose.

• Toxicity: The degree to which a substance or mixture of substances can harm humans and animals.

Buyer Beware
Despite the FTC guidelines, some of the most commonly used "green" terms on product labels don't have an official or verifiable definition. For example, according to the EPA and National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), there are no official definitions for the following terms: Cruelty Free, Eco-Safe, Environmentally Friendly, and Environmentally Safe. If you're considering purchasing a product that makes one of these claims, don't take the seller's word for it. Do your research and learn what's behind the marketing so you can make the best choices for you, your family, and the world around you.

How to Find the Information You Need
So what can you do to the avoid confusion that can result from overstated marketing language? Do your research before you buy. Use "green" product and service search engines like the ones offered by Green Seal, EcoLogo, and the NRDC. On the go? Try the National Resources Defense Council's Label Lookup, an iPhone app that can help you make informed product decisions. Look for certifications you recognize and terms you understand. If you don't recognize a product's certification, check out the EPA's Terminology Services Terms & Acronyms search tool and learn just how "green" the product is.

About the Author:
Jacqueline joined Women & Co. in 2001. As operations manager, she works toward making sure members receive the full benefits of membership. Jacqueline's goal is to improve Women & Co.'s existing applications as the membership grows and changes. Jacqueline is a graduate of Lehigh University with a BA in Science, Technology and Society.

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