Our first full month of spring, in April we celebrate the Earth and trees, in addition to paying our taxes. Probably most of us try to use the least harmful chemicals around our families and pets when in our homes and gardens. With lots of various labels adorning products, what do they really mean? The terms “natural,” “eco,” and “green” are thrown around a lot, but they aren’t regulated by any government agency. For example, a product can claim to be “natural,” but no government standard exists for regulation of this word.
Let’s look back at how we arrived at our current level of eco-awareness.
1939: DDT is discovered by Paul Hermann Mueller, who would later be awarded the Nobel Prize for this in 1948.
1940s: During the second half of World War II, DDT was employed to sideline both typhus and malaria. After the war, DDT was widely used as an agricultural insecticide. An advertisement in 1947 by by Penn Salt Chemical company even proclaimed, “DDT is good for me.” Many household insect sprays contained it, too.
1962: Rachel Carson published her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, which chronicled the negative effects humans can have on nature. The book brought both awareness of man’s impact and spawned a grassroots environmental movement, all the while garnering strong opposition from the chemical corporations.
1970: The first Earth Day in the United States is celebrated and President Richard Nixon proclaims the last Friday of April as Arbor Day, which was first celebrated in Nebraska in 1872, when 1 million trees were planted.
1971: The memorable Keep America Beautiful ad featuring a American Indian paddling down a polluted river with a teardrop rolling down his cheek is aired.
Here are some of the popular labels you will find on consumer products today.
Asthma & Allergy Friendly: Products are tested for standards set forth, approved, and adopted by The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Cradle to Cradle Certified: A nonprofit organization, Cradle to Cradle product standards measure five categories: material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness. A product receives a rating ranging from basic to platinum, with the lowest ranking providing the product’s overall rating.
EcoLogo: A voluntary standard, EcoLogo is owned by Underwriters Laboratory and tests for standards during a product’s lifecycle from manufacturing through disposal.
Energy Star: Established in 1992 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Energy Star is a voluntary labeling program to identify energy-efficient products to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The label is now found on computers, lighting, and household appliances.
Forest Stewardship Council: An independent, nonprofit organization, The Forest Stewardship Council is membership-led and members vote on the standards and policies. The members of the board of directors are from three areas of representation: social, economic, and environmental.
Green Seal: A nonprofit independent organization, Green Seal tests and certifies products and services and certifies their label.
Greenguard: A division of Underwriters Laboratory, Greenguard is a third-party independent lab that tests products against established standards from various health agencies.
LEED Certified: Administered by the U.S. Green Building Council, Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED) certification looks at all aspects of design and construction of a building with regard to sustainability. Buildings earn various rankings, including certified, silver, gold, and platinum.
Post-Consumer Recycled: Post-consumer material is the waste generated by consumers and industry end-users of products that have reached the end of the life cycle of the product’s initial purpose.
Pre-Consumer Recycled: This measures the percentage of a product that is made from manufacturing waste such as sawdust.
Rainforest Alliance Certified: Products meet standards that require environmental, social, and economic sustainability, as set forth by a coalition of conservation groups in the Sustainability Agricultural Network.
Safer Choice: All the chemicals in labeled products have been reviewed by the EPA to be the safest possible, using strict criteria for environmental and health safety and verified by an independent third party. For consumers and purchasers, especially those with allergies or sensitivities, Safer Choice also awards a “fragrance-free” label to easily identify products that have been verified as free of fragrance materials.
USDA Certified Bio-based Product: The USDA awards this label about the bio-based content of a product and ensures that a product contains a USDA-verified amount of renewable biological ingredients. Product manufacturers must test the bio-based content at an independent, third-party laboratory to be in compliance with this designation. Products must contain at least 25 percent bio-based ingredients and list the percentage under the label.
USDA Organic: Regulated by the USDA, the term organic can be applied to food or other entities or products directly in the food chain, including seed suppliers, farmers, and food processors.
“Greenwashing”, or marketing a product or service as environmentally friendly when it isn’t, unfortunately occurs. Researching a product if you are uncertain about its claims is one way to spot it. If there is valid information to back up a claim, a legitimate company will gladly share it. When you aren’t certain about a particular product, look at the company as whole and consider its environmental track record and reputation.