What Exactly Is Green Cleaning? How to Choose the Right Eco-Friendly Cleaning Products

When you think of green cleaning products, you might imagine a lot of different things: biodegradable, chemical-free, eco-friendly, or less waste packaging. These are all good associations, but your favorite cleaner could have all or none of these qualities. The same is true of buzzwords like “clean” and “natural,” which are often in the eye of the beholder. 
In simple terms, green cleaning uses products and methods that might have less harsh toxins than traditional cleaners. Exposure to harsh chemicals can potentially cause damage to human health, as well as our entire ecosystem. While not all green or eco-friendly products are chemical-free or completely harmless, they can be a healthier alternative.
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Allen Rathey, director of the Indoor Health Council, says that when there is confusion about product labels, it is useful to know a few definitions. He says green cleaning products “should perform similarly to conventional products, with a smaller negative impact on the environment and health. The dilemma is that many product labels greenwash, using meaningless (as used) terms like ‘eco-friendly,’ ‘natural,’ ‘earth-friendly,’ and ‘landfill-safe.'” Meanwhile, the terms natural and eco-friendly are “mostly meaningless unless it refers to water. That’s not to say these products have no merit. It’s just that the terms don’t define or guarantee much,” Rathey explains. 
Some brands get green certifications, which can be a positive sign that the products are less harmful to people and the ecosystem, but the value of certification depends on what is being certified. “For example, Green Seal has meaningful certifications, as does Design for Environment/Safer Choice. But, read the fine print, so you know what claims are verified,” he advises.
Many people assume green cleaning products have the following features:
  • No phosphates, chlorine, artificial fragrances, or colors
  • They are biodegradable or have recyclable packaging
  • The ingredients are plant-based or organically grown using sustainable farming practices 
But this is not always the case.
Another common belief is that green product brands make donations or contributions to philanthropic or humanitarian causes. But not all donate a portion of their profits to environmental causes. Others might positively impact the planet in unseen ways, such as using eco-friendly raw materials, operating in LEED-certified buildings, or offsetting their carbon footprint. 
Although there’s a wide variety of definitions, all of these acts and changes are generally good. However, it’s important to know what you’re buying, and labels can help.

What do green cleaning product labels mean?

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) permits companies to put labels on products that meet their criteria for certain standards. For example, Safer Choice, which is the “EPA’s label for safer chemical-based products. Every chemical, regardless of percentage, in a Safer Choice-certified product is evaluated through EPA’s process and only the safest ingredients are allowed,” reads the Safer Choice website
However, brands often use multiple tags and certifications that, at first glance, might seem redundant. Standard product labels you might find include:
  • Cruelty-free: This indicates products were not tested on animals.
  • Eco-friendly: This is used for products that are not environmentally harmful. It suggests everything from production to packaging of the product is favorable and safe for the planet, thus reducing the impact on the environment.
  • Green: This label suggests the products are safer for human and planet health.
  • Sustainable: This suggests a product it will sustain  environmental, economic, and social benefits throughout its life cycle.
  • Natural: This suggests it’s made from ingredients derived from sources found in nature.
  • Non-toxic: This suggests that the elements used to make the products or substances are free of toxins and avoid adverse health effects.
The label claims above might be made or inferred, but as noted, they can be so broad as to be meaningless. When shopping for cleaning products, look and ask for specifics, including certifications of green products regulated by third-party entities. Some examples of certifications include:
  • Certified Organic: This indicates products do not use genetically modified organisms or synthetic fertilizers. While more common in food, it does apply to certain cleaning products.
  • Certified Biobased: These labels show how much of a product contains bio-based ingredients.
  • Ecologo: This is a third-party certification issued by Underwriters Laboratories (UL), a company with more than 100 years of experience developing safety standards. It shows products that have reduced environmental impact.
  • Green Seal: This is the original green cleaning certification, which has been around since 1989. It includes an evaluation to ensure products meet specific standards for sustainability. The product’s entire life cycle is reviewed, meaning that there are strict standards that a product must follow to be certified. 
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What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when companies deceptively use eco-friendly claims on their product packaging. An example of greenwashing is when a bottle of laundry detergent is labeled phosphate-free. Since phosphate-free detergents are already the norm, this is considered greenwashing.
Another example is when a sponge is labeled as recyclable. Just because something is reusable, that doesn’t mean it is truly recyclable. Such a claim on the packaging might edge out a competitor that has the exact same product. A consumer quickly glancing might mistake “recyclable” for “compostable” or “biodegradable,” and think they’re making a superior choice, when really they’re buying a regular sponge. These claims are considered greenwashing since they indicate an environmental benefit, but the application doesn’t exist.
Also watch out for fake eco-friendly symbols created by brands. Companies might design logos or symbols themselves, which are not backed by any institutional review.

How to Make the Best Eco-Friendly Cleaning Choice

Rathey says that there are a few rules of thumb when choosing which green cleaning product is right for you. He suggests looking for those “with fewer ingredients, and to beware of those with long multi-syllabic names. Look for signal words (danger, warning, caution, etc.), hazard, and precautionary statements.” Among key ingredients, he says to be careful with fragrances, dyes, and degreasing agents. 
Dr. Lauren Richter, an assistant professor at the Rhode Island School of Design who studies social inequality, health, and the environment, recommends that “concerned consumers do a few things: look at the Environmental Working Group consumer product reviews and look at tips on how to limit exposure to chemicals from the Silent Spring Institute and the Green Science Policy Institute.”
She also suggests making your own cleaning products from vinegar and baking soda. “Interestingly, when you cut out the packaging, such as disposable plastics, you also cut out a lot of sources of chemical exposure. A great example of this is cloth diapers and cloth sanitary products, like cloth glad rags; they cut out plastic and exposure to chemicals used to treat paper products,” she shares. For tips on phasing out plastics, Dr. Richter recommends Trash is for Tossers and other zero-waste or plastic-free shops.