Cleaning the house usually leaves me awash with guilt over the potentially toxic products I’m using -- which means I’m a sucker for anything that says it biodegrades, or is safe for the environment, or doesn’t murder baby seals. But I’ve also got to keep my eye on my family’s budget, which often leaves me standing in the cleaning-products aisle of Whole Foods glaring at the various products and wondering which, if any, are actually doing any good.
This is why I listened carefully to a recent radio show about the Federal Trade Commission’s revamping of their Green Guides -- which left things as clear as (organic) mud.
If you’re wondering how trustworthy the environmental claims of your cleaning products are, here’s what I found out after a little digging.
The FTC's Green Guides aren't actually any use to us as a guide. They are there for the marketers of green products, so that when a company makes a claim, they understand what the average consumer expects. Basically, this is a cover-your-butt situation for them: If they stick to the FTC's guidelines, they can turn around and say, "Well, we did what you said!" if they get sued by someone for false advertising.
Two other government organizations do give green certifications to cleaning products. They include:
Energy Star Ratings: Using standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, this logo means that the home appliance you're looking at operates efficiently enough to make a difference to the environment (and your wallet).
Biobased Products: From the United States Department of Agriculture, which also brings us the Organic certification on foods, comes this certification that your cleaning products (and lots of other household items listed in their catalog) are made, at least for the most part, of renewable ingredients.
Then there's GreenSeal.org, a third-party, non-profit organization that rates companies according to stringent guidelines that have to do with everything from the cleaner itself, its packaging, its scent -- the whole megillah. You can also search their database of approved products for some neat surprises -- like the super-cheap "sustainable earth" brand from Staples. Suck it, Seventh Generation!
To tell you the truth, there are literally dozens and dozens of similar labels that appear on products. Some are from other third-party organizations that have developed their own guidelines; but some are just internally designed by the marketing department of the company making the product. Boo.
It all gets a bit overwhelming after a while, but if you find a few brands and stick with them, at least you won't have to have this mental meltdown every time you go to Trader Joe's.
One handy-dandy resource is the Consumer Reports site "Greener Choices." If you see a logo on your favorite product, you can look it up there; the site rates each certification program and lets you know if they've been checked and verified as really being dependable.
Another great resource is the National Geographic Green Guide. Here, you can find articles, lists, and videos with info not just about products, but about how to use them so you get the maximum green effect with the minimum environmental disaster.
You can also get a book like Clean Home, Green Home ($15.25 at Amazon) to learn how to make your own cleaning products out of stuff like baking soda, white vinegar, or hydrogen peroxide. That doesn't mean they're non-toxic, but it means you know what goes into them, and you'll probably save some bucks in the bargain.
If there's a product you love and you want to know how good (or bad) it really is, GoodGuide.com is a good independent source for more information about the products you buy. But be forewarned: You might find out, like I did, that your favorite body wash isn't up to snuff!
How do you ensure your cleaning products are as un-toxic as possible?