By LEA WEISHAAR and CRAIG MATTSON
Let’s face it; “going green” has become more than just a tagline on an eco-friendly shopping bag. Everyone from car to greeting card manufacturers is trying to “green-up” their products in an effort to make our planet a little cleaner and healthier. It makes sense, then, that the products consumers use to keep their houses clean also keep our environment clean.
Companies such as Seventh Generation and Clorox are hoping to do just that with their brands of environmentally-friendly cleaning products. Unlike the more traditional cleaners, these products proudly advertise their use of “green” ingredients.
The word “green” refers to the alternative sources used to make up the products. Traditional cleaning products mainly rely on chemical and petroleum-based ingredients, which tend to be more abrasive and potentially harmful to the consumer. Green cleaning products focus on plant derived elements, which are gentler for the consumer as well as the environment.
For example, Clorox’s Green Works boasts that its secret cleaning ingredient is none other than coconut. Likewise, Seventh Generation emphasizes its use of plant-based ingredients such as citric acid and xanthan gum. Both of these companies claim to be just as effective as traditional cleaners without many of the harmful toxins. But can their natural formulas stand up to their classic counterparts? And is the price difference worth the product? That depends on who you ask.
One place to start is Goodguide.com. GoodGuide employs scientists, engineers, social scientists and other environmental experts to rate green products. When you visit Goodguide.com, an introductory video featuring Dara O’Rourke, Goodguide co-founder and chief sustainability officer, explains how the company works.
Ratings are based on evaluations of the ingredients used in products. Health ratings are based on known effects of products’ ingredients, while environmental ratings focus on a company’s manufacturing processes, and how sustainable and transparent they are. The society category focuses on how a company treats workers and its record of responsibility in the community.
Thousands of products have been studied and rated at Goodguide. Examples include Clorox Green Works Chlorine-Free Bleach. It gets an overall score of 7.5 out of 10. In the health category it rates 10. It does pretty well in the environment category, scoring 6.5, and societal impact, scoring 6.0.
Compare that with health ratings for Clorox Ultra Bleach, which scores a 6.9. It scores an 8 in the health category and 6.5 for the environment. Clorox Liquid Bleach, all scents, scores 5.5. It scores a 4 in the health category, 6.5 for the environment, and 6 for social responsibility. Because details about this product’s ingredients are not disclosed, the health rating gets an automatic 4.
As environmental and health rating systems are subject to varying sources of information, the process of judging products is still being perfected. Information on a product’s ingredients comes directly from the company that makes it.
Clorox’s website lists basic ingredients for bleach products and provides a link to its Green Works product webpage. Comparing ingredients, one sees the difference between “green” cleaners and “standard” cleaners.
Dr. Colleen Conway, professor of chemistry at Mount Mary College, said being informed about a cleaning product’s ingredients is one way to make good decisions.
In traditional bleach, sodium hypochlorite acts as the bleaching agent to remove dirt and stains. “Bleach does a great job. It kills germs,” Conway said. But chlorine in traditional bleach is problematic because it creates unwanted chemicals when it is used. Chlorine-free bleach uses sodium hydroxide as a bleaching agent, which also kills germs.
In green cleaners, citric acid is an alternative used to get out stains, while coconut acts as a natural detergent. Synthetic detergents contain phosphates, which are bad for the environment. Phosphates released into lakes and rivers create algae blooms, robbing them of oxygen they need to support life.
Conway said it might be necessary to strike a balance between traditional cleaners, green cleaners, and plain scrubbing for health and environmental safety. Considering the effects of traditional cleaners, Conway said, “I use a little cleanser, a little elbow grease.”
Anne-Marie Carrao is a stay-at-home mom of three on a budget. Like many, she believes in the green movement, but finds herself trying to strike a balance between cost and chemicals in her cleaning products.
“I’m not rich,” she said, regarding the higher prices natural cleaning products charge. To combat this, she uses a blend of traditional and green cleaners and is very specific about which cleaner is used where.
“I use Green Works All-Purpose Cleaner to clean my kitchen table and counter tops because I don’t want all these chemicals where I eat,” Carrao said. The issue of strength is a concern when questioning green cleaning products. When a consumer is paying a premium price, he or she assumes that the product will be comparable, if not better.
Truth in “green” product labeling is one reason some consumers question which brand, if any, to purchase. “I don’t think anyone ever looks into how it is green, but the marketing takes care of a small amount of questions you have, so you go along with it,” said Carla van Willigen, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who uses Green Works and purchases the brand because of its marketing campaign.
For many, the scent of bleach is the scent of strong cleaning. Seventh Generation’s lemongrass and thyme scented bathroom cleaner, although gentler on the nose, doesn’t have everyone convinced it is just as effective. So why not try these products for yourself? Or visit Goodguide.com to see if they’re right for you.
For more information on green cleaning products, visit:
Seventh Generation (SeventhGeneration.com), Clorox’s Green Works (Greenworkscleaners.com), SC Johnson’s Nature’s Source (SCJohnson.com) and BabyGanics (Babyganics.com).