Recently, the Rice Environmental club conducted a poll at each of the colleges, gauging interest for a homemade, eco-friendly laundry detergent activity. They received mainly disinterest. Renee Li, member, remarked, “I'm disappointed in the negative responses. Surprised actually, because usually DIY events are pretty welcomed at Rice. However I'm glad that people were honest. I think one reason may be that many people aren't that invested in the environment here. It's not like we're Seattle or something. I'm still having trouble trying to understand the apathy however.” This apathy is not just an issue at Rice. A study by GfK Roper Consulting, titled “Green Gauge” found that one-third of consumers in the United States believe that eco-friendly products do not live up to the performance of regular products. 1With the increasing awareness of protecting the environment, eco-friendly products have been on the rise. From hand soap to bathroom counter cleaners, multiple products tend to boast how “eco-friendly” they are . Although it seems like these products would be more appealing than their “non-green” counterparts to a more environmentally conscious population, most consumers automatically perceive these products as less effective, as if these eco-friendly products lack a sort of “super chemical” ingredient, imperative for it to work properly. This irony of a more environmentally-conscious population being skeptical of “green” products begs a series of questions that will be explored in this post: “What attributes of regular products make them environmentally unsafe?”, “Are environmentally-friendly products just as efficient as normal ones?”, “If green products are just as efficient, how can we as consumers persuade ourselves to overcome the initial skepticism about eco-friendly products?”
Are “regular” products bad?
Products that aren’t “green” aren’t necessarily bad. However, certain products can contain chemicals that are either untested or known to be harmful to the environment. For example, air fresheners and cleaning products that give off byproducts in the air that are not harmful until these chemicals bind with contaminants in the air to create carcinogenic secondary byproducts that can be dangerous to breathe in. 2 This is not the only type of danger some chemical products pose. Some phosphates in automatic dish detergents and laundry detergents pollute rivers which results in the eutrophication, or excessive chemical concentration, that eventually kills fish and other aquatic life. 3 The scarier note is that these are known chemicals with well-documented harmful effects. There are about 80,000 well-documented chemicals commonly used, but there are many, many more in use whose environmental effects have not been studied or tested. 3 These effects can range from human health to our environment. According to CBS News, unlike the numerous and heavy regulations imposed on food inspection, there is no such governmental regulation on chemical products. In addition, companies are only required to report primary, dangerous first-hand, hazardous chemicals, causing institutions to ignore chemicals with potential long-term effects or even avoid fully reporting all chemical ingredients present in a product. 4
What about “green” products?
Enter eco-friendly, “green” products. The frightening facts about chemical misinformation make it easy to want to “go green”. However, misreporting of the chemicals in green products also occurs. There are lax guidelines on what is allowed and not allowed in environmentally friendly products. Some products have buzzwords that attribute to a phenomenon called “greenwashing”, when the product isn’t actually environmentally-friendly, but is marketed that way. In order to combat this incorrect labelling, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission issued guidelines in 2012 for officially definitions of eco-friendly labels - which is a good start. For example, “biodegradable” has been defined to mean that a product must break down within a year.5 Another thing that deters consumers from buying green products is the perception that the consumer is paying more for a less efficient product . According to the Florida Department of Environment Protection, “Purchasing name brand green cleaning products may appear more expensive; however, most of the green cleaning products on the market actually require less product per application to effectively get the job done. In addition, many green cleaners serve more than one purpose, requiring only one cleaner for multiple uses, rather than a separate product for each job.”6 In most cases, the non-green chemicals can make your cleaning job easier, but it doesn’t make it any cleaner. A study by William Nazaroff and Charles Weschler titled “Cleaning products and air fresheners: exposure to primary and secondary air pollutants” found that green and non-green products are relative the same in levels of cleanliness. 2
The best way to check to see what’s in your green products is to look for third-party certification stamps on products, like the Green Seal.7 You can also DIY products with common household ingredients like vinegar, bleach, and baking soda, which have been used for years and years.6 So is greener cleaner? Cleaner for the environment, yes, but only some may work better for your bathroom sink.
Dana Smith is a sophomore from Wiess College at Rice University.
Dolliver, M. Consumers Don't Warm to Eco-Friendly Products. AdWeek, http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising-branding/consumers-dont-warm-eco-friendly-products-107875?page=2.
Nazaroff, W.; Weschler, C. Cleaning products and air fresheners: exposure to primary and secondary air pollutants. Atmospheric Environment, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/s1352231004002171.
Thompson, A. The Truth About 'Green' Cleaning Products. LiveScience, http://www.livescience.com/1737-truth-green-cleaning-products.html.
CBS. "Natural" Cleaners: "Green"? Effective? CBSNews, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/natural-cleaners-green-effective/.
Wyatt, E. F.T.C. Issues Guidelines for ‘Eco-Friendly’ Labels. The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/02/business/energy-environment/ftc-issues-guidelines-for-eco-friendly-labels.html.
Common Misconceptions of Green Cleaning. Florida Department of Environment Protection, http://www.dep.state.fl.us/green/gc_misconceptions.htm.
Rastogi, N. Do green kitchen cleaners really work? Slate, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/the_green_lantern/2009/03/do_green_kitchen_cleaners_work.html.