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[greenyes] Eco Products in Demand
>From Today¹s Boston Globe
 
Eco-products in demand, but labels can be murky
By Beth Daley, Globe Staff  |  February 9, 2005

Deep green in color and with an aroma of fresh sassafras, Simple Green is a
popular household cleaner marketed to environmentally concerned consumers.
It bills itself as nontoxic, the ''safer alternative" to other cleaners.

But one of Simple Green's key ingredients is the same toxic solvent that can
be found in traditional all-purpose cleaners such as Formula 409 and Windex,
a fact that consumers cannot discern from the products' labels.

Demand for environmentally friendly products is increasing, but consumers
cannot be sure that what's inside the bottle matches the promises on the
label. While Canada and the European Union have government-sponsored
criteria for so-called green products, the United States lags far behind,
especially for products used in homes every day. Product labels promise
cleaners that are natural, nontoxic, environmentally preferred, or
hypoallergenic, but in the United States there is no government or
industrywide agreement on what the terms mean.

''It's troubling . . . and incredibly confusing for consumers," said Urvashi
Rangan, eco-labeling project director and scientist at Consumers Union, a
nonprofit group that publishes Consumer Reports. She started the website
www.eco-labels.org four years ago to help consumers navigate terminology on
product labels.

''It's misleading to the people because they think these products won't
cause them harm," Rangan said. ''But the terms they base that decision on
may not mean anything."

Officials from California-based Sunshine Makers, which makes Simple Green,
stand by their claims, which they say are backed by more than $3 million of
testing.

''We are proud of our data," said Milt Krause, the company's vice president
of research and development as well as environmental technology. ''Simple
Green is safe."

But when asked what makes Simple Green a safer alternative to toxic
cleaners, solvents, and bleaches, as its label states, Krause declined to be
specific. ''This is tough," he said, ''because it's proprietary."

Once, consumers were wooed by ''extra strength" and ''double action" claims
on products. But over the past 25 years, environmental claims began
appearing on labels as marketing surveys indicated that consumers also were
eager to help save the earth. These early products, from recycled paper
towels to phosphate-free laundry detergents, were often more expensive and
less effective than existing products.

In the 1990s, Hefty's degradable garbage bags came under fire because they
did not decompose as advertised. Other so-called greenwashing scandals
followed, and many consumers returned to familiar brands.

Now, consumers are again eager to save the environment. Sales of organic and
natural household cleaners, which include laundry and dishwashing
detergents, rose from $140 million in 2000 to $290 million in 2004,
according to the Nutrition Business Journal.

Several questionable claims have arisen in response to demand for
eco-friendly products. Researchers at Scientific Certification Systems, a
California-based company that verifies product claims in stores such as Home
Depot and Whole Foods Market, found a plastic-and-steel carpenter's level
marketed with claims that no old growth or rain forest wood was used in its
manufacture. ''Some of the claims just don't make sense," said Kirsten
Ritchie, director of environmental claims for SCS.

The United States has made strides in some areas of labeling, especially for
energy-efficient products and organic food. But no clear standards exist for
many claims on household-product labels. Manufacturers do not have to list
ingredients on those product labels, although some companies do. Simple
Green does not.

To find out what's really inside a cleaner, consumers must decipher label
claims or request documents the company must publish that list federally
named hazardous substances. The independent nonprofit group Green Seal in
Washington, D.C., has developed criteria for green household cleaners, but
the organization largely focuses on institutional cleaners and its seal is
not widely recognized. Even so, Simple Green, which does not meet Green
Seal's tough criteria for consumer household cleaners, is developing a
formula to qualify, Krause said.

The secret formula for Simple Green's cleaner was created in the 1970s by
former Chicago Bears football player Bruce FaBrizio and his father. One of
the first environmentally friendly household cleaners on the market, it was
sold to industrial customers for cleaning equipment and floors but soon
targeted consumers. Simple Green's many products are used today, its website
says, in millions of homes and by the US government. Last year, Simple Green
sold at least $5.7 million of its all-purpose cleaners in US supermarkets,
drugstores, and mass-merchandiser stores. according to Information Resources
Inc.

Although no ingredients are on the label, consumers could request a Material
Safety Data Sheet, the document that includes all federally listed toxic
substances.

A key ingredient of Simple Green is butyl cellosolve, a substance considered
toxic by the federal government that can be absorbed through the skin or
inhaled, possibly destroying red blood cells, among other potential dangers.
Concentrations of the solvent in household cleaners are not thought to pose
an immediate danger to people. But some environmentalists insist the
cleaners should not be labeled ''green" because the federal government
considers butyl cellosolve toxic.

While company literature urges people to dilute Simple Green, it is sold in
a spray bottle that some consumer advocates say promotes full-strength use.
Owner FaBrizio used to drink a glass of the cleaner at trade shows to prove
its safety. Krause said it is unfair to call a chemical mixture toxic based
on one component. The formula, he said, was tested and found to be nontoxic
by independent labs hired by Simple Green and verified by other labs.

Krause said Simple Green is not considered toxic by the Consumer Product
Safety Commission, which oversees consumer products. The commission's job is
to require product warning labels, largely about specific, immediate, and
acute health harm. Simple Green is required to have a caution label under
the guidelines because it is an eye irritant. The commission has not
established standards for what nontoxic should mean, a spokesman said.

Simple Green encountered trouble over its nontoxic claim and general
eco-friendly ads in the early 1990s. Then, rival company Clorox, which makes
Formula 409, complained to the National Advertising Division of the Better
Business Bureau that Simple Green's ads and labels were misleading in part,
because the product contained butyl cellosolve.

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@no.address

 




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