This Is What the Ideal Eco-Friendly Cleaner Looks Like

published Aug 5, 2021
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Perfection is an impossible standard, and that’s true of cleaning products as much as it is for everything else. And yet, it’s so tempting to try to figure out what an ideal eco-friendly cleaner would look like. Experts caution against going down that path. The concept of ideal in and of itself is subjective, but add to that words like sustainable or eco-friendly, and you are already so far down the rabbit hole you can practically taste the organic EAT ME cake.

But as people prepare to reacquaint themselves with outside germs and bring more of them back into their homes, it feels fair to at least ask how someone might keep their home clean while maintaining an environmental awareness. What would the ideal eco-friendly cleaning product look like?

There are many stages in the lifecycle of a cleaning product, and each stage offers new opportunities for interaction with the environment. With expert insight along the way, let’s break down the ideal eco-friendly cleaning product supply chain.

Stage 1: Transparency

In all healthful relationships, open and honest communication up front reduces the risk of heartbreak down the line. This is true even in the case of the relationship between a cleaning product company and its consumers.

In fact, Brian Sansoni, Senior Vice President of Communications, Outreach & Membership at the American Cleaning Institute — a 95-year-old trade association for the cleaning products supply chain — listed “increasing transparency” as the first of four priorities in the industry’s sustainability efforts. (It was followed by “reducing emissions, valuing nature, and contributing positively in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”)

To be honest, I found this goal to be a little nefarious — what does transparency have to do with the environment? — and it turns out, it kind of is.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

In 2017, the California state legislature passed the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act, a state law co-sponsored by the Environmental Working Group that requires companies to list known hazardous chemicals in cleaning products on the labels and online. “We were really pushing with the bill to get companies to disclose what was in there, but we see that when companies have to disclose, they tend to want to reformulate rather than disclose some of those nasty ingredients that might be lurking in the formula,” EWG’s Senior Research and Database Analyst Samara Geller tells Apartment Therapy.

The result of this mandated transparency is safer, cleaner formulations. Fortunately, the impact of this law is felt beyond California, as it wouldn’t be entirely practical for (inter)national companies to produce unique formulations and labels for individual states.

So, although transparency isn’t inherent to sustainability — a company can be eco-conscious and tell no one, and they’d still be eco-conscious — transparency encourages sustainability. If a company isn’t hiding anything, then they have nothing to hide.

Stage 2: Safe, Effective Ingredients

In considering the makeup of a sustainable cleaning product, it’s important that it is two things: (1) effective and (2) safe for people and the environment.

Efficacy is top of mind because if a cleaning product doesn’t clean, then the fact that it is being produced and distributed at all makes it bad for the environment. All energy and resources that go into creating an ineffective product are wasted, and waste is generally not eco-friendly.

For a heavy-duty clean, you can decipher a cleaning product’s efficacy from the label. Legally, only products registered with the Environmental Protection Agency can make claims regarding sanitizing and disinfecting.

Credit: BONNINSTUDIO/Stocksy

However, for day-to-day purposes, a disinfectant isn’t always necessary. “Bacteria doesn’t grow on clean surfaces, and cleaning with an effective soap and possibly a scouring powder is sufficient to keep the household clean and healthy, just like a proper hand washing is sufficient to keep us germ-free,” AspenClean president Alicia Sokolowski tells Apartment Therapy. AspenClean’s cleaning products were the first to earn EWG Verified certification, a process which corroborates both the effectiveness and environmental safety of a product.

Environmental safety can be a bit harder to decipher. For the average consumer, understanding ingredient disclosures on a cleaning product label is not second nature, and terms like “natural,” “chemical-free,” and “plant-based” aren’t doing us any favors. That’s where greenwashing seeps into the narrative, when companies use buzzwords to imply a higher level of environmental awareness.

They’re not necessarily bad words, but without additional context, they’re empty. “Certain chemicals that you don’t understand might seem bad at first, but if they’re synthetically made in a safe way and in safe working conditions, then it’s probably not that bad, so you have to go one level deeper than just the name,” Lizzie Horvitz, founder and CEO of product sustainability assessment platform Finch, tells Apartment Therapy.

Credit: Sarah Crowley/Apartment Therapy

In addition to where the ingredient comes from, it’s worth considering where it’s going. After use, whether rinsing down the drain or throwing in the garbage, a cleaning product will cycle through the ecosystem, introducing a secondary host of environmental concerns that can eventually come back to humans.

“A lot of times things are found in the aquatic environment that magnify up the food chain,” Geller explains, “So it might not necessarily be hazardous at that acute level for a human being, but if it makes its way into the food chain, oftentimes we don’t know what the impact is going to be on humans.” (An example of an ingredient entering the food chain would be microplastics, which are largely banned in cosmetics but still appear in some cleaning products and have been found in aquatic populations.)

Barring memorizing extensive lists of acceptable and hazardous compounds, the easiest thing to do to determine a cleaning product’s environmental safety is look for science-backed claims and third-party certifications like Green Seal, Ecologo, or Safer Choice. (Although it’s worth mentioning certifications are like transparency: a product can still be planet- and people-friendly without it. Plus they often cost money to get, which might not be feasible for some small businesses.) Or, let someone else do the work for you: EWG’s app breaks down the safety of individual products on the go, and Finch‘s browser extension (currently available via a waitlist) provides additional insights throughout a product’s lifecycle.

Stage 3: Responsible Packaging

Sustainable packaging is a huge trend in the cleaning product space right now. Companies that offer refillable bottles with concentrated cleaning pods are leading the charge — effectively employing two of the three R’s by reducing the number of total bottles produced while individuals reuse the packaging. The impact of this is felt across the supply chain, with less energy spent in the manufacture and transport stages.

The goal of refillable cleaning products is, as Blueland CEO and co-founder Sarah Paiji Yoo says, “to eliminate single-use plastic packaging and help create a more sustainable planet for ourselves and future generations.” The company bolsters their eco-friendly mission with recyclable shipping materials and compostable refill tablet wrappers.

Single-use plastic is, unequivocally, bad for the environment. Multi-use plastic, on the other hand, is a lot less bad. If designed well, it can be a one-time emission fee for a lifetime of use with benefits that recycling can’t offer. “With recycling, you first have to assume that these end consumers are doing the right thing by putting their products in the recycling bin, which is a pretty big assumption to make,” Horvitz says. “But even if that happens, there are then at least seven steps to go through to make sure that that product has a second life. And you just don’t have control over that.”

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Gaining control over post-consumer packaging is a priority for ACI member companies. “Our ambition for our industry is for all cleaning product packaging to be circular,” Sansoni says, with aims to develop systems of recovery and recycling that eliminate cleaning product packaging waste by 2040. Circular packaging is a system in which packaging is able to be reused in perpetuity by taking a 360-degree approach that includes everything from exclusively using non-virgin or compostable packaging materials to taking responsibility in the post-consumer phase by implementing bottle return programs or collecting ocean-bound plastic.

While some large companies are releasing refillable concentrates, when it comes to mass-distributed disinfectants, circular packaging might be the safest route. (Remember: there are legalities behind disinfecting and sanitizing claims on packaging.) Companies include crucial safety information on their packaging — for example, what to do in the event of ingestion or contact with the eyes — and if a consumer refills their bottle with a different product, there can be severe consequences.

A side benefit of larger companies investing in circular packaging rather than focusing solely on refillable concentrates is that many ACI member companies produce more than just cleaning products, so the implementation of circular packaging could impact many industries at once.

For now, refillable packaging rules, but there are exciting developments in the works from companies investing in circular packaging.

Stage 4: Lower Emissions

Greenhouse gas emissions are overwhelming our planet and are largely to blame for the climate crisis. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 23 percent of overall greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. in 2019 came from industry and 29 percent came from transportation. (For comparison, 13 percent of emissions were attributed to the commercial and residential sector, which includes all of our daily household emissions.) The way companies manufacture and transport goods can have a huge impact on our overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Credit: Sarah Crowley/Apartment Therapy

Of course, these numbers include more than just the cleaning product industry’s manufacture and transport of goods, but the cleaning product industry does contribute to those numbers, so when considering a cleaning product’s impact — or any product’s impact — it’s important to consider the energy behind the product’s journey.

For larger cleaning product companies, the path to lowering emissions is slow and steady. According to ACI’s 2019 Sustainability Report, since 2008 (the year the institute started tracking these numbers), product formulators have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent and have increased renewable energy usage by 19 percent.

“A real challenge [for member companies] is working with their partners across the supply chain to reduce the upstream emissions,” Sansoni says. Many cleaning product companies — especially those with large operations — will work with various third-party businesses throughout the supply chain: Company A might manufacture an all purpose spray and bottle it in containers made by Company B, and then Company C might take over the transportation from factory to warehouse to stores. Getting an accurate understanding of a product’s total emissions depends on all involved companies working together to create goals and commit to reducing impact at all stages. In fact, according to research from Smeal College of Business professors Verónica H. Villena and Dennis A. Gioia and published by Harvard Business Review, a complete top-down approach to reducing emissions is crucial to developing a more environmentally sustainable supply chain across all industries.

The cleaning industry at large is aiming to reach net zero emissions by 2050, Sansoni adds. For now, 15 member companies are piloting that path. In the meantime, some smaller cleaning product companies, like Blueland, are already Climate Neutral Certified by working with their manufacturers and transporters to reduce consumption, track waste, and offset any remaining emissions.

Stage 5: Marketing and the Sustainability Spectrum

Words like “green,” “natural,” and even “sustainable” have become increasingly vague as eco-friendly options moved from fringe communities into the mainstream. The growing public awareness around environmental concerns is good — but the ambiguity around the language can be confusing and misleading.

To help clarify a product’s impact, Azora Zoe Paknad suggests viewing sustainability as a spectrum. She employs this methodology on her ecommerce site Goldune, a company that curates and sells sustainable everyday products.

“[The sustainability spectrum] gives you more of a sense of how much room there is for this product or this supply chain or this category to grow and why we pick it as maybe the best option we could find versus, ‘This is good/this is bad,'” Paknad tells Apartment Therapy. “I think that also allows us to have a little more wiggle room to talk about things like environmental racism.” Companies taking responsibility for their own pollution is great — and creating consciously in addition to cleaning up other companies’ residual environmental messes (both physical and systemic) in disproportionately impacted low income communities is even better.

Ultimately, the goal is to reject fear- and shame-based marketing tactics and encourage an uplifting, accessible, and environmentally conscious shopping experience.

With the varying environmental priorities across the cleaning product industry, viewing individual products on a sustainability spectrum could come in handy. Ultimately, there is no absolute ideal eco cleaning product, and there can never be one because the way we understand our place in nature is constantly evolving, and so our ideals will evolve with it.

But as long as you’re wholly considering the cleaning products you use — or really, any product you use — and prioritizing sustainability in the ways that feel accessible to you, you’re taking steps toward a more eco-friendly home. Whatever that looks like inside your home, that’s what’s ideal.