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May 20, 2018  |  Login
Dirty Little Secrets about Green Cleaning Product Labels
It may be more important to know what should be on the product label than what shouldn’t be there
By Karyn Siegel-Maier

It feels pretty good to pluck a ‘green’ household-cleaning product from the sea of chemical-laden offerings on the supermarket shelf, doesn’t it? Your fellow consumers must feel just as warm and fuzzy about it since, together, you’ll collectively spend about $500 billion on environmentally-friendly products this year. 1 That’s a lot of green, indeed.

Unfortunately, your dollar may be taking a spin at the cleaners due to an increasing trend toward ‘greenwashing’ on the part of some manufacturers. In fact, according to TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, Inc., who released the study titled, ‘The Six Sins of Greenwashing,’ at least 99% of the products surveyed contained eco-labeling language that was less than truthful or misleading.2  

How can you keep your environmental attentiveness and your budget from going down the drain? Read on.

Lofty Labeling Language

First, let’s examine what the current labeling standards are for cleaning products in the U.S. For the most part—and this may come as a shock--there aren’t any. Unlike food or personal care products, manufacturers of cleaning products are not required to disclose a full list of ingredients on the label (unless it claims to be a disinfectant).

In addition, you may see terms on cleaning products such as ‘natural,’ ‘non-toxic,’ and the like. However, these are simply advertising words without significant meaning since there is no standard definition for them. In other words, these phrases can be used to convey what the manufacturer intends to represent, which often translates to mean that the product is natural and/or non-toxic only in part, to a certain degree, or by merit of containing a scant few drops of botanical essential oil in a formula otherwise chock-full of pesticides and other toxins.

Meaningful or Moot? 

Other claims intended to convince consumers that a cleaning product is eco-friendly simply lack any relevance. For instance, some spray-on laundry stain removers proudly display the words, ‘CFC-Free’ or ‘No-CFCs’. This is hardly worth noting since CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, have been banned from all aerosol products since 1978.3  Another example of immaterial language is the ‘phosphate-free’ claim, which commonly appears on laundry detergents. This claim is of no consequence. Most manufacturers of powdered laundry detergents phased out phosphates by the mid-1990s, and liquid detergents cannot contain phosphates because it’s impossible: they are insoluble in such formulas. It is important to note, however, that the ‘no phosphates’ claim does have significance when it comes to automatic dishwasher detergents. 

Who’s Minding the Store? 

We’ve all heard about the consequences of false advertising, but be aware that there is no regulatory authority that systematically monitors the use of environmental claims on cleaning product labels, at least not before they appear on a market shelf near you. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) may investigate and enforce fair labeling practices, but usually does so only in response to consumer complaints. Likewise, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is charged with the task of supervising the safety of cleaning products, usually gets involved only after injuries have been reported. Further, while there are labeling standards in place for environmental claims as outlined by the International Standards Organization (ISO), compliance on the part of manufacturers is voluntary. 

Being Green Made Easy Again 

Does all of the above mean you should forego the green section of the cleaning products isle and opt for the cheaper conventional cleaner instead? Certainly not! However, it does suggest that you may need to become savvy about spotting empty eco-labeling claims and, more importantly, learn what to look for on the package that ensures that the product is actually green.

Look for Third-Party Certifications 

Green cleaning products that display a certification or seal should indicate that the product and its ingredients have been verified by an independent, third-party that does not have a financial or special interest in the product or the company that manufacturers it. more


1.Estimate based on the 2007 ImagePower Green Brands Survey, conducted by WPP’s Landor Associates, Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates and Cohn & Wolfe:

2.US Press Release: "The Six Sins of Greenwashing” (PDF file):

3. Government Ban on Fluorocarbon Gases in Aerosol Products Begins October 15 [1978] [EPA press release - October 15, 1978]

4.FTC Announces Workshop on ‘Green Guides’ and Packaging, Febuary 25, 2008. -

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