Cleaning your house in a way that promotes a healthy, livable planet is not as easy as you might think. As an article in last week’s Boston Globe relates, the popular cleaner Simple Green, marketed to environmentally concerned consumers as a nontoxic, “safer alternative” to toxic cleaners, in fact contains the same toxic solvent found in conventional cleaning solutions like Formula 409 and Windex.

The US has credible national standards in place for labeling organic food and for rating the energy efficiency of appliances. But unlike Europe and Canada, who have government-sponsored criteria for green products, no such standards exist for household cleaning products, personal care products, or cosmetics. Hence, the words “natural,” “nontoxic,” and “environmentally preferable” end up meaning whatever the producer wants them to mean; in fact, for cleaning products, there is no requirement that ingredients even be listed on the label.

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  • Consumer’s Union has started a website to help folks make sense of “eco-labeling.” The site is informative, but it’s not a one-stop site for choosing good products. There are some websites designed to help institutional cleaners choose environmentally friendly products, but I haven’t found a great site geared toward consumers (suggestions welcome!). We’ll keep you posted if we find a good site for helping to distinguish truly healthy products from “greenwashed” ones.

    P.S. A recent article in Seattle-based Evergreen Monthly documents similar problems with cosmetics and lists some resources for helping you make informed decisions about those; Environmental Working Group has also investigated toxics in cosmetics.

    P.P.S. Fairness Note: In response to the Boston Globe article, Simple Green says that the company stands by its claim that their product is “safe;” the Material Safety Data Sheet on Simple Green is available here, where the solvent Butyl Cellosolve is indeed listed, although the sheet goes on to say that “upon completion of the manufacturing process, Simple Green does not have the occupational health risks associated with exposure to undiluted Butyl Cellosolve.” My point holds: without studying industrial chemistry, it’s hard for consumers to judge the safety and environmental friendliness of what they’re buying.