By Mark Bishop
Ecolabels are extremely important because they empower companies and consumers alike to choose more sustainable, environmentally responsible products. Over the past 20 years, the use of ecolabels has skyrocketed, with companies transforming their chemical offerings to more sustainable and healthier options - and the acceptance of ecolabels has been a major player in driving this change.
While I find the proliferation of this phenomenon interesting, it can also be vexing to some. As this article from Chemical & Engineering News explains, green ecolabels are so commonplace that the variety of standards out there can be confusing: a product that meets the standards of one may fall short of another, or how do we even know if an ecolabel is credible. From HSC’s perspective, we want purchasing decisions to be not only the healthy choice, but the easy choice. For that reason, we limit the primary ecolabels that we consider to three broadly accepted standards: Green Seal, US EPA’s Design for the Environment (DfE) and UL Environment's EcoLogo. We commend them for their work on setting a high bar for cleaning chemicals.
Schools and commercial cleaners understand the value of these ecolabels when making purchasing choices. Despite some lingering perception that remains among schools and facilities directors that environmentally sound cleaning products are more costly and not as effective, many are already using green cleaning products and using ecolabels as determinants of what to buy. In fact, I’ve worked with schools that were resistant to purchasing green chemicals only to open up their janitorial closets to see exclusively Green Seal-certified products. Green cleaning is everywhere and, at times, it happens right under our noses! (Literally. Isn’t it nice knowing something can clean safely and powerfully without that overly chemical or floral smell?)
Since we launched the Quick and Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools in 2006, we have seen tremendous strides in the marketplace, and it has been exciting to watch this broad acceptance happen. Nearly every major cleaning manufacturer and supply company now has a set of “green” products.
But how can we improve upon ecolabels and the standards they enumerate?
When the majority of companies are meeting the standards set by the likes of Green Seal and EcoLogo, the standards that were high five years ago have now become the norm. This is good news for the future of green cleaning, but that also means there is always room for improvement. And while standards are updated periodically, is there a way to use the marketplace to continue to improve the quality and sustainable capabilities of green-certified cleaning products beyond ecolabels?
To think about this, let’s consider how labels have affected other consumer behavior: when we go out grocery shopping and try to make healthy choices with the food we buy, we often turn to the nutritional labels to determine the nutritional value and make informed choices. If we want lower fat or sugar content, we can look at the label. Current ecolabels are limited to pass/fail of an entire set of criteria. However, what I’d want to see is the equivalent health and environmental information as we have for fat, sugar, calories and vitamin C. I would want to compare products certified by ULE and compare, for example, how much does a product off-gas VOCs, and how quickly the products break down in the indoor environment.
A system that included this type of information would augment ecolabels and empower an informed consumer. As nutritional labels are supplemented by supermarket resource guides and apps like Fooducate, a similar system could be in place to inform commercial and retail consumers about cleaning products. That’s why I am particularly looking forward to the future of two resources on green cleaning -- ISSA’s cleaning product registry Transpare for commercial products, and GoodGuide for retail products -- and seeing their role in empowering sustainable choices.
Ecolabels have contributed to some incredible strides for the green cleaning movement but there is always room to improve upon past successes. Programs that put more factual information in the hands of purchasers can help drive change in purchasing decisions. We look forward to a bright future for green cleaning and seeing where the bar will be raised next. At Healthy Schools Campaign, we want to not only empower informed, healthy decisions, but also make the healthy choice the easy choice.