Last week Whole Foods Market introduced a new tiered rating system for household cleaning products. The color-coded Eco-Scale Rating System categorizes products as red, orange, yellow or green based on a specific set of environmental and sourcing standards.
The New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that around 84,000 chemicals used in consumer goods, including some home cleaners, have not been tested to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency safety standards. Whole Foods will have every one of its cleaning products independently audited to make sure that it meets Eco-Scale standards by Earth Day 2012. Red-rated products will be scrubbed from Whole Foods' shelves, and the remaining will be color coded.
According to a Whole Foods Market online survey of nearly 2,500 U.S. adults, three out of four respondents think the government requires manufacturers of household cleaning products to list ingredients on the label. In fact, the fed doesn't. Beginning in April 2012, however, all household cleaning products carried by Whole Foods must list every single ingredient on product packaging.
Like with household cleaning products, Whole Foods has similarly pushed standards in its personal care aisles. By June 1, “organic” PC products sold in its stores must be certified organic by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or “made with organic” by NSF/ANSI 305. And three years ago Whole Foods adopted its Premium Body Care Standard, which allows products that meet the company's standards for quality sourcing, environmental impact, results and safety to don the Premium Body Care seal.
Comparing competing standards for household cleaning products
Will natural home cleaning products go the way of natural and organic personal care and become another category wrangling over numerous industry standards? Time will tell.
"Although household products make up a small percentage of retail food store sales, they occupy a relatively larger share of peoples’ consciousness because they come into contact with the skin and are perceived to directly affect family members’ well being, " said Jay Jacobowitz, president of Retail Insights, a Brattleboro, Vt.-based naturals retailer consultant company. "Therefore, I believe that Whole Foods’ move will put pressure on other quality retailers to follow suit. There are sure to be competing rating systems, as we’ve seen with nutrition labeling systems the past few years."
Already several industry standards for home cleaning products are rivaling for consumer attention. More than 15 years ago, the EPA introduced its Design for the Environment program, which allows certain household products such as cleaners to don a label if they meet the EPA's criteria for human and environmental health. In June 2009, the EPA released an updated DfE standard for cleaning products.
The Washington, D.C.-based Natural Products Association launched its Natural Products Association Standard and Certification for Home Care Products in February 2010. Unlike the Whole Foods or EPA systems, the NPA program is geared toward "natural" products, but not necessarily "eco" products. "We want to make a commitment to one label claim," said Cara Welch, PhD, vice president of scientific affairs for NPA. Welch and her colleagues thought that defining "green" products would be an "ambitious project," so "we focus on naturally derived ingredients processed in a natural manner," she said.
Still, she thinks that the Whole Foods program complements the NPA's in many ways. Like Whole Foods, the NPA requires full disclosure of ingredients on packaging. "That is an absolute requirement for certification in our program," Welch said. "Consumers want to know completely what's in their products, not just major ingredients."
The EPA's DfE program stops short of requiring complete ingredient disclosures on product labels. Instead, DfE-labeled products don't have to list "trade secret" ingredients, and ingredient lists can appear on company websites rather than product packages.
Unlike Whole Foods, the NPA gives manufacturers two years to phase out synthetic fragrances and colors from the launch date of the program. Whole Foods set a deadline of one year for products to comply with the company's criteria.
Will competing standards lead to confusion?
If natural and organic personal care is any indicator, creating many and divergent standards for natural home cleaning products can lead to consumer confusion. "I feel like a third-party label is enough," Welch said. "It's nice that Whole Foods is taking an extra step, but it can get a little confusing."
Some independent retailers agree. "It seems to me that Whole Foods might want to work within the industry instead of striking out on its own," said Ben Henderson, co-owner and general manager of Bare Essentials Natural Market in Boone, N.C. Henderson points to the NPA standard as one independent retailers can identify with.
What can retailers do?
Both Welch and Jacobowitz view retailers as gatekeepers between the manufacturer and consumer. But that role can function in different ways. For Welch, retailers should become knowledgeable about standards and relay that information to customers. "Of course, that requires more homework on the part of the retailer," Welch said.
To Jacobowitz, retailers have a "legitimate role to 'edit' their product selection according to whichever standards they wish to adopt." And that could require not only more effort, but more money. For example, if a store develops its own standards, it would likely have to be like Whole Foods and conduct third-party tests to ensure compliance because new research shows that product information from manufacturers can't always be trusted. A study conducted by scientists at Seventh Generation, a Burlington, Vt.-based natural cleaning products manufacturer, used carbon dating to test the origin of the carbon in nine liquid laundry detergents, seven hand dishwashing liquids and six hand washes. The researchers found that all of the products contained some traces of petroleum, even the ones marketed as "green," although the "green" brands did contain less than those without such eco-claims. The term "green" isn't regulated by the federal government.
Considering the cost and work involved, creating and managing a retailer rating system for household cleaners may prove impractical. But natural products retailers can still help customers make educated purchasing decisions. "If the retailer is not going to adopt a rating system, then full-disclosure of ingredients and their purpose and possible impact is the next best step," recommended Jacobowitz. "An ingredient guide for shoppers could perform this function, and also apply pressure to the manufacturers to adopt higher standards, or at least defend their ingredient panel."