While shopping around at your local store or online, you may have noticed that there are many cleaners claiming to be environmentally friendly or “eco-friendly”. These products may include one or more of these terms: eco-friendly, green, natural or all-natural and some also are organic products. Or, you may have heard a friend, family member, or someone in a store commenting on a product that they heard is “eco-friendly”. While these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they are not the same, which leads to many questions, including…

What does this mean, and who decides or enforces that? Are these products safer for the environment? What about for and you and your family? Are these products any worse at cleaning than “traditional” products?

In this post, we will start to delve in to these and other questions related to greening your clean.

What does eco-friendly mean?

Although it seems like it should be a fairly straightforward definition (Miriam-Webster’s definition is “not environmentally harmful”1), it is a very broad term, and it can be difficult to prove all aspects of a product or process meet this definition. For this reason, many regulations for products and marketing focus on claims that can be substantiated or they qualify a broad claim with “clear, prominent, and specific” environmental benefit.2

In the US, this can create a cross section where marketing or advertising claims fall under the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Green Guides2 while standards may be set by other government agencies or 3rd parties. These government agencies can include a government entity such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), some private sector entities or trade groups, and/or nonprofit environmental advocacy groups.3 Possibly the most well-known and recognizable labeling and standards program run by the EPA (along with the Department of Energy) is ENERGY STAR (energystar.gov). While ENERGY STAR is not related to cleaning products, it is a great example of labeling and how standards can be adjusted and expanded to include other products over time.3,4

What is in an eco-friendly cleaner?

An eco-friendly cleaner is supposed to be a product that “does not harm the environment” which typically means it is intended to be less environmentally hazardous than traditional cleaners.

Typically, these products would be designed without using ingredients that pose significant environmental concern. It is important to look at the initial compound as well as its degradation pathway. Some may negatively impact the environment with an initial compound like phosphate builders (e.g. sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP) or tetrapotassium pyrophosphate (TKPP)), while others such as alkylphenol ethoxylates biodegrade more slowly than alternatives (e.g. linear alcohol ethoxylates) and have biodegradation intermediates that are more hazardous to aquatic environments than the parent alkylphenol ethoxylate surfactant itself.5

It is implied that these formulas also avoid the use of hazardous solvents or other ingredients that are known to be carcinogenic (cancer-causing) or otherwise harmful to human health. These products often are low-VOC or no-VOC (volatile organic compounds) so that air quality is not negatively affected by the use of the cleaner. They typically make use of ingredients that are environmentally-benign and designed to readily biodegrade into materials that also pose little-to-no environmental concern.

That sounds great! But do they also perform well?

Like a good TV show, we’re going to leave this on a cliffhanger. Look out for our next Bite-Sized Blog on What it Means to Clean Green: Cleaning Performance and Standards.

Standards may change and new information may be released, so this blog may be updated to reflect the new information. Please check back in with us for the most up-to-date information!


1 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/eco-friendly

2 https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center/guidance/environmental-claims-summary-green-guides

3 https://www.epa.gov/greenerproducts/introduction-ecolabels-and-standards-greener-products

4 https://www.energystar.gov/about/history/major-milestones

5 Lange, Robert K. Detergents and Cleaners a Handbook for Formulators, New York, 1994 (ISBN: 1-56990-167-8)

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