Biodegradable, natural and non-toxic are environmentally friendly promises plastered across many household products, but a CBC Marketplace investigation found that a number of them amount to little more than greenwashing.
"There's so much greenwash on shelves today, it's just overwhelming," said Adria Vasil, a columnist and author of the Ecoholic book series. "It's like a tsunami of greenwash really."
Figuring out whether products are actually environmentally friendly can be challenging since companies don't have to post the ingredients on cleaning products.
Watch CBC's Marketplace Friday Sept. 14, at 8 p.m. on CBC Television.
"For companies, they think, 'Consumers aren't looking too deeply. We can bamboozle them.'" said Marc Stoiber, who worked in advertising for 20 years but now helps companies go green.
Ecoholic author Vasil worked with Marketplace to examine environmental claims on household products and created the following Top 10 list of lousy labels.
1. Dawn Antibacterial dish soap
The labels on Dawn's antibacterial dish soap feature baby seals and ducklings with the promise that "Dawn helps save wildlife." Dawn donates soap to clean up animals after oil spills and gives money to rescue groups, but the product itself contains an ingredient harmful to animals.
Triclosan, an antibacterial agent, was recently declared officially toxic to aquatic life and it is an ingredient environmental groups have called for to be banned. "We don't need more of this in our rivers and streams," said Vasil. "And it's certainly not saving wildlife."
Proctor & Gamble, maker of Dawn products, refused an interview request by Marketplace. In a statement, the company said, "All of our Dawn dishwashing products and ingredients are in compliance with current legal and regulatory requirements in Canada."
2. Biodegradable J Cloth
The decades-old J Cloth recently came out with a new product it suggests is an environmentally friendly alternative to paper towels: Biodegradable J Cloth. That and an official-looking biodegradable seal may lead some to believe it can be composted.
When CBC Marketplace called the manufacturer, they said the cloth can be thrown into compost bins. "J Cloth is composed of cellulose fibres, which are 100 per cent derived from wood pulp. These fibres are organic in nature, and biodegradable," they stated.
However, a Marketplace expert notes it can't go in the green bin because municipalities regulate what is certified compostable. Anything not approved is sent to a landfill. "Nothing biodegrades in landfills," notes Vasil. "You'll find 40-year-old hot dogs in landfills."
3. T-fal Natura frying pan
While the T-fal Natura frying pan uses 100 per cent recycled aluminum, an environmental benefit, there are other concerns with how misleading the label is.
The label advertises the pan as free of PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, a manmade chemical used in the manufacture of non-stick cookware and a likely human carcinogen. The fact is there's never been PFOA used in T-fal frying pans, but the company has come under criticism for using it in the manufacturing process.
Marketplace called the company to ask whether the new "PFOA free" label means they've stopped using it in factories, and they said it's still in use. "Independent analysis … has confirmed that no PFOA is present in any of T-fal's non-stick cookware products," they added.
4. Organic Melt ice remover
One of the key concerns around using road salt to melt ice is the damage salt does to aquatic life when it reaches rivers, streams and groundwater. Organic Melt ice remover advertises itself as being "environmentally safe" and an "agricultural-based product" with sugar beets.
When Marketplace checked with the company, it revealed that only three per cent of its product is sugar beets by weight and the rest is rock salt — that despite the fact that the ingredient list puts beets first.
'The word natural is totally unregulated.'—Ecoholic author Adria Vasil
There's no requirement for companies to put the main ingredient first on the list. The company, Eco-solutions, told Marketplace that using sugar beets makes the product work better so less is needed and overall there's less salt going into the environment.
5. Vim PowerPro Naturals
The label on Vim PowerPro Naturals bathroom cleaner says 98 per cent natural ingredients. But as Vasil notes, "The word natural is totally unregulated."
Since companies aren't required to list ingredients for cleaning products on the back, Unilever has decided not to post them — or reveal them even when asked. "Unilever does not disclose specified ingredients information. However, if it's a medical necessity for this information, Unilever would be more than happy to work with your physician," a customer service agent said when Marketplace called them.
Marketplace commissioned a test on the product. Like many cleaning products, it largely contained water. When water was eliminated, one-quarter of the product was found to be petroleum-based chemicals. Unilever stated, "Our 'naturally derived' claim is based on all the ingredients in the product, including … water."
6. Eco Collection bath mitt
The Upper Canada Eco Collection bath mitt is made from bamboo, a plant that can be sustainably grown, but the tough grass is not as green as it might seem. Harsh chemical processing is required to turn the plant into a soft fabric.
The product also comes packaged in unrecyclable vinyl. When contacted by Marketplace, the company said, "Our packaging includes necessary product information for our customers to make an informed decision."
7. Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner
On the label, this cleaning product states it's non-toxic. But a Marketplace expert determined that one ingredient in the cleaner, 2-butoxyethanol, is listed by Environment Canada as a toxic health hazard that can damage red blood cells.
Vasil notes that no one is policing use of terms such as non-toxic on household products. The toxin is also not listed on the back of the product because there's currently no requirement for ingredient lists on cleaning products. "No one is forcing them to list their ingredients and to come clean about what's actually in the product," said Vasil.
Simple Green responded to questions from Marketplace about its non-toxic claim in a statement. "We have had independent laboratories … conduct a host of testing on our product as a whole to confirm that the complete formula is non-toxic."
8. ObusForme EcoLogic contoured pillow
While most memory foam is made out of polyurethane, a synthetic material that emits chemicals that can irritate the lungs, the label on the Obusforme EcoLogic pillow states that it contains "natural ingredients" and includes castor oil – a potential environmental improvement, if the amount was significant.
However, when Marketplace contacted the maker, HoMedics, the company said castor oil replaced only eight per cent of the petroleum-based polyurethane. "The ecologic contoured pillow is produced using processes that reduce the use of chemicals that are harmful to the environment," said HoMedics.
9. Sunlight Green Clean laundry soap
Featuring a dew-covered leaf on a crisp white bottle, Sunlight Green Clean laundry detergent looks the epitome of environmentally friendly and the label promises "plant-based cleaning ingredients."
But CBC commissioned a test of the product and found that, once water is eliminated, 38 per cent of the product is made of petro-chemicals. Those chemicals leave a major environmental footprint in terms of extraction, refinement and processing.
Sunlight responded to Marketplace in a statement that said, "With more than 60 per cent [plant-derived content], we have made significant positive strides to reduce the environmental impact of our product."
10. Raid EarthBlends Multi-bug Killer
With an insecticide derived from the chrysanthemum flower, Raid EarthBlends Multi-bug Killer touts itself as an alternative insect control solution. Despite its naturally derived component, the label warns users to avoid contact with skin and clothes, and not to inhale the mist when spraying it.
"A lot of things in nature are actually dangerous and toxic," said Vasil. "Not all natural things are good for you. And this is a perfect example."
The product states it can be used for bed bugs, despite that in many parts of Canada, homeowners are banned from using such pesticides on their lawns. "Banned from your backyard, but OK for your bed?" questioned Vasil.
In a statement, the maker, SC Johnson, said it is "committed to using sustainable ingredients in our products" and the products are "safe and effective when used as directed."