How do I know which cleaning products are the most environmentally friendly?

Obstacles to Identifying Environmentally Safe Cleaners

Household cleaners make up a $16 billion industry. And the natural and organic household cleaners category makes up 5 percent of it, coming in at $737 million. These figures come from the Nutrition Business Journal, which projects that natural/organic household cleaners will experience a compound annual growth rate of 14 percent from 2009 through 2017 [source: Ooyen]. With so many product options, choosing the safest, healthiest cleaners for the home can be challenging for reasons other than too many choices, namely the lack of a national regulatory body.

A fraction of the tens of thousands of chemicals in commerce in the United States are used in consumer goods like household cleaners. Chemicals are regulated as they enter commerce rather than at the product level. This means that there is no seal or label given to cleaners by an independent, nationally recognized organization.

The EPA, however, encourages manufacturers to develop safer products. Those who do so are allowed to use its Design for Environment (DfE) logo on approved products. The mark allows consumers to easily identify products, such as household cleaners, that can help protect the environment and that are safer for human health.

But shoppers who want to know exact ingredients might not find what they're looking for on household cleaner labels. U.S. law does not require manufacturers of cleaning products to list all ingredients on labels. But manufacturers might be changing their ways in the near future. The Soap and Detergent Association and Consumer Specialty Products Association launched a joint, voluntary effort to encourage their members to list their ingredients in a public format by 2010. In the meantime, consumers are left to make sense of what's on the packaging.

Different manufacturers can make the same marketing claim like "degradable" or "ozone-friendly" and mean different things with those terms. This has resulted in confusion among consumers. Albeit, the Federal Trade Commission is in the process of updating its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, a document more commonly called "Green Guides." In it, the FTC sets a standard of transparency for marketing products, including cleaners, and explains how terminology should and should not be used. The FTC is legally allowed to bring law enforcement actions against false or misleading marketing claims.