Green Cleaning: Label Power

Feb. 1, 2011
The move toward ingredient disclosure.

Schools and universities have been true leaders and early adopters of green cleaning. Combined purchasing power has resulted in hundreds of manufacturers that now offer "green" certified chemicals and other cleaning products, and the number of certified products is now in the thousands.

Today, an emerging strategy to surpass the basic certifications is to buy from manufacturers that provide complete "ingredient disclosure." Purchasers believe that the additional ingredient information will help them identify products that might better meet a specific need better—protecting small children, pregnant woman or building occupants with specific health conditions such as asthma. Furthermore, manufacturers that completely divulge information are likely to use more care in selecting ingredients; they won’t be able to hide problematic ones by simply keeping them under legal reporting requirements.

Currently, the requirement for reporting ingredients is based on the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s (OSHA) Hazard Communications Standard, which created the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). The MSDS requires the disclosure only of hazardous ingredients in the formula above 1 percent and carcinogens above one-tenth of 1 percent. But there is no requirement to disclose hazardous ingredients below the minimum thresholds, nor to disclose any ingredient not considered hazardous.

Some states such as New Jersey require that the top five ingredients by amount be listed on the MSDS, but most states do not require this. Thus, for many chemical cleaning products, an MSDS provides purchasers with little insight into the product’s ingredients. And the MSDS provides little insight into a product’s effects on the environment; it is focused solely on protecting workers’ health and safety.

The MSDS was a good start, but full ingredient disclosure will create voluntary incentives that will help reduce the health and environmental impacts of the products and reward manufacturers who go beyond the minimum requirements of the MSDS and third-party green certifications.

One reason ingredient disclosure is taking hold now is that an approach has been developed that meets the needs of these purchasers and others such as children’s health and environmental advocates, and protects manufacturers who have legitimate confidential business information (trade secrets).

This new approach was led by the Consumer Products Specialties Association (CSPA), a major chemical industry trade association, and the Sierra Club’s Toxics Committee, one of the oldest and largest environmental organizations in the United States. Their approach lays the foundation for an ingredient communication program that will be adopted by manufacturers and purchasers, as well as third-party certifiers such as EPA’s Design for the Environment Program (DfE). Ultimately, this strategy likely will be the foundation for federal legislation.

Ingredient disclosure is easy for purchasers in schools and universities to determine. All that has to be done is to look on the label of the chemical products to see if it includes the following:

•Disclosure of all intentionally added ingredients.

•Ingredients must be disclosed on the product label, on the formulator’s website, at a toll-free number, or on other media.

•List highest percentage of concentrations in descending order.

Ingredient disclosure can improve efforts to protect health and the environment. If cleaning chemicals do not provide full ingredient disclosure, discuss it with the supplier; it may represent a manufacturer that does. Schools and universities can demonstrate leadership simply by buying from these manufacturers, and the cost of this improvement is zero.

Ashkin is executive director of the Green Cleaning Network, a 501(c)3 not-for-profit educational organization. [email protected]

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