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Weighing Green Products

Many people support green products in theory, but when it comes to buying or using them, they balk. The usual concerns, once appropriate products have been identified, are that green products may be more costly, as well as the perception that they may not perform as well as conventional products. Ultimately, unless customers are convinced they are buying a good value, they will opt for something traditional and of known benefit.


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And well they should — for it helps the environment little to produce a green product that doesn't work well or is beyond the price point of most consumers. So the real rub in green purchasing comes in convincing the homeowner or housekeeper that the green product won't need too many more rubs and that their pocketbook won't be rubbed bare.

The good news is that, nowadays, green products can be found at both the institutional and the consumer level that are comparable in these two important respects to conventional, more toxic products. Green-product manufacturers realize that their products have to compete on par with leading brands, and they are formulating to do so, even without such effective but questionable ingredients as EDTA, butoxyethanol and phosphates. Also, as more and more green products get into the retail mainstream, they must compete on price or go into the backwater again.

It would be premature, however, to declare that all price and performance differentials between green and conventional products have been eradicated. For one thing, green products tend to be niche products, either a small line of a large manufacturer or a major line of a small manufacturer. Until green products are made at the same economy of scale as conventional products, there may continue to be at least minor price differences here and there.
The Dollar Tally
But consumers should take heed of the so-called "life-cycle costs" of products: what may be cheaper initially may turn out to be far more expensive overall. The classic example is light bulbs. A much more expensive compact fluorescent bulb uses so much less energy over its much longer lifetime that you pay significantly less overall than if you use a number of cheaper incandescent bulbs in its place. Even for less easily quantifiable products like cleaners, the potential for conventional cleaners to cause respiratory distress or even asthma in the home must be considered an inherent life-cycle cost that is not reflected in the out-of-pocket price you pay at the store.

In our experience, green consumer products, particularly cleaners and detergents, have improved dramatically in performance over the past decade. Reputable green chemical manufacturers do not expect their customers to put up with mediocre performance. So a well-known green manufacturer recently came out with a phosphate-free automatic dishwash detergent that does, indeed, leave those glasses without smears (unlike its previous product). And a major traditional manufacturer has come out with a bathroom cleaner and disinfectant that is based on citric acid, and is claimed to remove soap scum three times better than the leading trigger-spray soap scum remover (per an ASTM test method).
Home-made Alternatives
But what about getting all of these "artificial" chemicals out of your home and using so-called "natural" ingredients — such as baking soda, vinegar, borax, lemon juice, and essential oils — for your cleaning? This is recommended by some homecleaning experts, and in fact in the late 1980s the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency actually issued guidance for making home-brewed cleaners — until it was retracted due to an uproar by industry. Will these products perform as well?

In actuality, some of the products made by major manufacturers are not much different from such common concoctions. One well-known manufacturer has established a whole line of cleaners on common baking soda. However, the mixes put together by industrial chemists are likely to be somewhat more sophisticated than what you can concoct in your home.

Green Seal has not done any formal performance tests comparing homemade cleaners with traditional manufactured cleaners, including those similar to the homemade kind. Our sense is that, while homemade cleaners may indeed get the job done, you may have to put more effort or time into the cleaning process to achieve the same level of performance. For some this is an acceptable trade-off in return for reducing the toxic load in their homes. Others may prefer the ease of modern cleaners.

With the advent in the market of many more green cleaners that perform well, this trade-off is becoming less and less necessary. Just remember that labels and claims — even the name "green" — should not be taken at face value. Make sure the ingredients are indeed less toxic and that the product will leave your home environment in a cleaner but also more healthful state.


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Weighing Green Products:  Created on April 15th, 2007.  Last Modified on January 11th, 2010


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About Dr. Arthur Weissman

Dr. Arthur Weissman

Arthur Weissman is President and CEO of Green Seal, the leading non-profit green cleaning certification organization. Dr. Weissman has over 25 years of experience in environmental policy, standards and enforcement. He joined Green Seal in 1993 as Vice President of Standards and Certification, becoming President and CEO in late 1996, and he served as Chair of the Global Ecolabelling Network from 1994 to 1997.

Prior to joining Green Seal, he was responsible for developing national policy and guidance for the Superfund program at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He also served as a Congressional Science Fellow and worked for The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut.

He holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in physical geography and environmental science, a masters in natural resource management from Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a bachelors degree from Harvard University.



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