choosing a cleaning product

EPA’s label is a useful tool for consumers and companies.

Last year EPA revamped their “Design for the Environment” program – a voluntary recognition program for formulated products that avoid hazardous chemicals. It is now called “Safer Choice” – a more apt description – and it has a snazzier label, which we blogged about last year. The agency is doing a public education push about it this week.

EPA Safer ChoiceThe new label is much more coveted by companies for obvious reasons – who wouldn’t want the Safer Choice? But it also begs the question: Are these products safer? The short answer is yes. The label is not the be-all/end-all but it is a useful tool for consumers and the companies trying to woo them with safer products. The more the label catches on, the better it will be for public health and the environment.

Companies that want the Safer Choice certification must submit their products to the agency for a thorough review that can take a couple of years. Getting the label is difficult, but more companies are trying and that’s a good thing.

The products must meet the Safer Choice Standard. Effectively that means it cannot contain chemical ingredients that are known to contribute to most human health and environmental problems. That means no carcinogens, reproductive toxins, or brain damaging chemicals, or chemicals that harm aquatic life, for example. EPA has looked at the function that different problematic chemicals perform in each product category and have identified low hazard alternatives. EPA has also compiled a list of Safer Chemical Ingredients that companies can choose from knowing they will definitely meet the standard.

Something I like about the program is that a company has to submit the full ingredients to EPA for vetting. Nothing can violate the standard, including the “inert” ingredients or fragrance components. EPA also helps companies identify safer alternatives to problematic ingredients, so there is a coaching component. Companies are audited to avoid a Volkswagen-type scenario.

EPA acknowledges that some of the “best in class” chemicals, mostly preservatives, are “lower” in hazard but still not exactly “low.” EPA designates these on its list with a yellow triangle. You can get certified with one of these chemicals the first time, but are supposed to innovate your way around it by the time you recertify. Also, some would argue no fragrances should be allowed in such a program. Instead, EPA allows fragrances as long as they meet the standard. The agency has created specific criteria for fragrances, which prohibit many highly hazardous chemicals in fragrance. But a company that is “fragrance-free” can get certified as such and consumers can look for that designation on top of the Safer Choice label. There are now dozens of products carrying this fragrance-free label.

So, could the program be tougher? Sure. Our friends at MADE SAFE have unveiled a label with strong criteria as has EWG. Some of our partners prefer Green Seal, which has a following particularly with institutional purchasers like schools. All have their merits.

Because it is backed by the EPA, Safer Choice is gaining traction with a broad group of companies. You can check out the list of over 2,000 certified products here. Many more companies are seeking the certification and have already reformulated. In fact, Walmart, Target, and Wegmans are requiring or incentivizing some of their suppliers to meet the Safer Choice standard. In a sure sign that the program is doing something positive in the world, the more retrograde members of the chemical industry have tried to cut the program’s funding in Congress. (So far they have failed.)

The bottom line is that EPA’s Safer Choice label is helping to transform the marketplace. It gives consumers an assurance that a product avoids many known hazardous chemicals and has been vetted by the government. It incentivizes major brands and retailers to reformulate their products with safer alternatives.

So to help yourself and the planet: look for the Safer Choice label and ask your favorite retailer where the Safer Choice products are located.