This March, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak at the Tri State Sustainability Symposium, an event produced by the Delaware Valley Green Building Council. The expo hall showcased the latest in green architectural innovation and products designed to help meet LEED certification.
I passed a table with a small display of Clean Well hand sanitizer, a product I used. I noticed that the sponsor of the table was Proctor & Gamble, and remarked that I didn’t know Clean Well was a subsidiary of P&G and it was nice to see them displaying a more sustainable product. (Note: They didn’t correct me, and I found out later that Clean Well has absolutely NO AFFILIATION with Proctor & Gamble).
Then I looked a little further down the table.
Spic and Span. Comet. Mr. Clean. Febreze.
“Um, why are these here?” I asked the men working the booth.
“What do you mean? These products are green guaranteed!”
“What does that mean exactly?”
“Well, you can take a look at this full-color glossy brochure. Our products are clean and green. In fact, Tide was green before green was even a thing!”
“Was it? And what ingredients might I find in these products? They aren’t listed on the bottle.”
“Take a look at our Web site. Everything is perfectly safe! Look, we have this new Febreze Allergen Reducer!”
“Um, Febreze is really just phthalates in a can. It actually aggravates asthma and personally gives me a migraine.”
“Well, look, we’re just here to let attendees know about the green guarantee. Take a look at our Web site!”
So I did. But first I sent a tweet out to DVGBC:
And at my panel I made a joke about probably not being invited back next year because of my social media outburst. The good folks at DVGBC took it in stride and one of their organizers asked me a very good question:
“You call out the Proctor & Gamble display. But shouldn’t we applaud the small steps instead of accusing them of greenwashing?”
My response was simple. It’s about transparency. They may put the product in a plant-based bottle but it’s really what’s inside that counts. You can put solar panels on your factory but if you’re cranking out toxic sludge, who are you kidding? At least put the ingredients on the bottle and stop keeping “fragrance” a proprietary secret!
Intrigued by this, I did go to the Web site www.greenguarantee.com, which led me to a startling revelation.
“P&G is a member of the US Green Building Council. P&G Professional’s core cleaning products can help every customer qualify for the Green Cleaning Point in LEED Certification. All of our disinfectants, floor finishes, and floor strippers count, including:
So that explains why they were there. But opens a whole new slew of questions:
So now I am determined to know how the cleaning part of LEED certification is literally watered-down bullshit.
P&G’s site claims, “As of this time there are no government agency or 3rd party ecolabel standards for green disinfectants.”
Conversely, at least ten states and the District of Columbia have adopted policies in recent years with the goal of advancing green cleaning practices in schools and reducing exposure to chemicals. As an example, Connecticut’s law prohibits the use of cleaning products in schools unless the products meet national or international certification program standards that have been approved by the state. The department has issued an environmentally-preferable purchasing policy approving products certified through the Green Seal or EcoLogo programs.
As an example, I took a look at some of the GreenSeal standards:
The undiluted product shall not contain the following ingredients:
Manufacturers shall disclose the use of any added fragrances on their safety data sheets (SDSs) and product labels. Any ingredient added to a product as a fragrance must follow the Code of Practice of the International Fragrance Association.
The undiluted product shall not contain any ingredients that are carcinogens, mutagens or reproductive toxins.
The undiluted cleaning product shall not be corrosive to the skin, as tested using the OECD Guidelines for Testing Chemicals or the Human Skin Construct systems.
The undiluted product shall also not be corrosive to the eye as tested using the bovine cornea opacity and permeability test after a 10-minute exposure.
The undiluted product shall not be a skin sensitizer, as tested by the OECD Guidelines for Testing Chemicals.
So, if P&G were to adhere to these environmental standards – which they claim do not exist – here’s what we’d be looking at according to their own MSDS on Spic & Span Disinfecting 3-in-1 All-Purpose Spray & Glass Cleaner:
Potential health effects:
Eyes: Corrosive. Causes severe or permanent damage.
Skin: Corrosive effects.
Inhalation: Vapors and spray mist may irritate throat and respiratory system and cause coughing.
Ingestion: Irritating to mucous membranes. Ingestion may cause gastrointestinal irritation, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Large ingestions may cause dizziness, incoordination, and headache.
Potential environmental effects:
May cause long-term adverse effects in the environment.
Chronic effects: Hazardous by OSHA criteria
Take a deeper look at some of the listed ingredients in Environmental Working Group’s database and there are immediate red flags for aminoethanol and benzylcoco alkyldimethyl, the two main ingredients.
Confronting P&G, one of the most powerful corporations in the country, about their greenwashing would take a multi-concerted effort from a huge amount of consumers.
So my first question is for this national organization whose mission statement is to transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built and operated, enabling an environmentally and socially responsible, healthy, and prosperous environment that improves the quality of life.
United States Green Building Council: What gives?
A marketing assistant at USGBC responded to my post by saying that “USGBC as an organization doesn’t actually vouch for specific products, we just establish the standards that, if met, would allow a product to count for the Green Cleaning point. If a product does not meet these standards then it is not eligible for LEED credit, no exceptions. In terms of P&G products specifically, your best bet would be to contact them directly inquiring about how their products adhere to the standards we’ve outlined. In order to contribute to the green cleaning credit products must meet at least one of the environmental/health and safety standards that we have identified as rigorous and effective, including Green Seal, which you mention in your post, and the EPA Design for the Environment Program’s Standard for Safer Cleaning Products… no exceptions.”
They claim that after reading my post they contacted P&G and asked them to remove the information from their Web site. Of course, P&G has not, and I doubt they will unless it is further pursued. But I don’t know that USGBC has the interest to follow up.
P&G have launched a massive campaign based on a total lie and they are actually sending out ambassadors to man booths at green building events to convince builders and consumers that buying toxic products will get them LEED certification. Pretty outrageous…