The last time you went to the grocery store or the local Walmart, did you count the number of cleaners, soaps, and detergents that labeled themselves “green.” At Target last week while attempting to find the laundry detergent that was supposed to be on sale, I was boggled by all the new green chemicals that I’d never heard of before my shopping trip. I wasn’t certain what most of them did — much less exactly how “green” they really were.
The problem with words like green, sustainable, and eco-friendly on products today is that no one really knows what they mean. We consumers have a general idea, of course, but it’s hardly specific, and it’s a safe bet that your idea of “green” and mine would probably mean slightly different things.
Tired of the general confusion and hoping to provide both companies and consumers with a better understanding of “green” claims, the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute has a plan. Working with representatives from the from the ACS, major chemical and pharmaceutical companies, trade groups, nonprofit environmental organizations, and academia, they hope “to build a comprehensive, multiattribute, consensus-based standard with third-party verification that a company can certify against to say its product is green or that its manufacturing process or facility is green.” They intend to have the American National Standards Institute certify their new standard by June 2010.
According to the Institute’s Director Robert Peoples, any number of green standards and labels already exist, but they generally focus only on one or two aspects of a product or process, such as the percent of recycled content or harmful chemical emissions. And they are issued by too many organizations to count, including industry trade groups, environmental organizations, the companies themselves, or even advertising agencies hoping to catch the eye of the disoriented consumer.
To avoid the confusion of just another meaningless green label appearing on packaging, Peoples envisions a less graphics-intensive label — possibly similar to food nutrition labels or appliance energy guides. It would include basic information “on process efficiency, including raw materials, water, solvent, and energy use; air emissions and solid-waste generation; and recyclability.” Such a complicated label would most likely present something of a learning curve, but in the end we consumers would be able to determine a chemical’s “greenness” ourselves.
Who knows, maybe a year from now, when I am once again wandering the aisles of Target in quest of more laundry detergent, I’ll finally know what it’s talking about when it claims to be new, improved, and more eco-friendly.