O.K. It’s Green But…What’s Inside


By Stephen Ashkin, President, The Ashkin Group

Canadian building service contractors and facility managers really do deserve a pat on the back. A few years ago, so many took a leadership role in the transfer and adoption of Green cleaning products that it truly is humbling. In some cases, they were far ahead of their peers in the United States and Western Europe.

The big turning point of course was the development and recognition of independent, third-party certification programs such as those developed by Canada’s EcoLogo program. Certification took the guesswork out of selecting an environmentally preferable cleaning product. If it was certified by EcoLogo, end users could rest assured the product had met stringent criteria and guidelines ensuring that it was safer for users with considerably less impact on the environment when compared to conventional products used for the same purposes.

Today, however, end users want to know more about the cleaning chemicals they are using, Green or not. They want to know, and rightfully so, exactly what ingredients these products contain. This is referred to as “ingredient disclosure” and appears to be one of the next big milestones that the cleaning industry is going to be asked to address on its ever-forward-moving Green journey.

Why Disclosure Is Necessary

Some end users might ask why this is necessary. After all, if the product has already been certified Green by EcoLogo or some other leading and respected certification body, isn’t that enough?

A few years ago, we might have answered yes, simply because Green certification programs were considered such a milestone for the industry. However, certification is no longer enough. Educated consumers are now demanding transparency so that they can make their own assessments. Some of their reasons include the following:

  • To identify products and their ingredients that might meet a specific need, such as protecting small children in schools or day-care centers
  • To recognize products and their ingredients that are safe for pregnant women or building users with specific health concerns such as asthma
  • To note products and their ingredients that might not be safe, or just the opposite, are preferable in medical facilities, long-term care locations, and other sensitive areas.

Some who oppose additional ingredient disclosure programs argue that much of this information is already available on material safety data sheets (MSDS), which are widely used throughout North America and many areas of the world. However, the purpose of an MSDS is not to disclose all ingredients but instead, only hazardous ingredients above one percent and carcinogens above one-tenth of one percent.

This means that ingredients that fall below these thresholds are not required to be reported. Nor is disclosure information required about ingredients that are not, at least at the present time, considered hazardous.

While MSDS was a very good start and definitely a step in the right direction, it really does provide little insight into a product’s overall impact on the environment. This is because the purpose of the MSDS is actually to focus on protecting the health and safety of the worker. Full disclosure will take this a step further by encouraging manufacturers to go beyond the minimum requirements of the MSDS and even third-party certification programs.

What Stands in the Way

This all seems simple enough and easily done, so why is there a hesitancy among chemical manufacturers in the industry to adopt a full ingredient disclosure program? The answer is confidentiality.

The cleaning chemical industry is very competitive. Once a successful product is introduced, other manufacturers try to develop similar products that perform the same cleaning tasks at the same performance levels. Sometimes, they even try to make their products smell like the product they are trying to duplicate. Anything they can do to win market share.

Requiring full ingredient disclosure, some manufacturers believe, would make it much easier for their competitors to develop competing products. And in all fairness, this likely is true. That is why it is one of the considerations in developing and advocating a disclosure information program.

According to ingredient information programs advocated by the Consumer Specialty Products Association (CSPA), the Canadian Consumer Specialty Products Association (CCSPA), and the Soap and Detergent Association (SDA), in such cases, manufacturers would need to list ingredients only by their “chemical function and/or chemical class descriptors” and not the actual names of the ingredients.

In addition, these advocates have helped identify some of the factors that would make it possible for a manufacturer to keep an ingredient confidential. For instance:

  • The extent to which the ingredient is known to employees of a company or to employees of other companies making similar types of products
  • The extent of measures taken to keep the ingredient secret and confidential in the past
  • The amount of money and effort used to develop the ingredient
  • The ease or difficulty with which the identity of the ingredient could be acquired or developed by others

Although this is all still under review, this approach appears both workable and acceptable to many chemical manufacturers as well as third-party certifiers. And to help make the process even easier for the end user to understand, a standardized product label is being recommended. The label would include information such as:

  • The name of the product
  • A picture of the product
  • A listing of what are termed “intentionally added” ingredients which can be compared to “active” ingredients found in medicines *
  • The formulator’s contact information, including a toll-free telephone number, Web site, or similar information
  • The purpose and/or benefits of this product

What You Can Do Now

Although these issues are now under consideration in the professional cleaning industry, and clearly ingredient disclosure is on the horizon, action so far has been slow. Few chemical manufacturers have adopted a full ingredient disclosure program.

If you agree with me that this is important, then there is much that you can do. Very simply, you can demonstrate your concern and leadership with your pocketbooks and purchase chemicals from those innovative manufacturers that are now providing full ingredient disclosure. Historically, Green cleaning has always been consumer driven. Most likely, a workable ingredient disclosure program will be consumer driven as well, and this time with your help.

*Many products will have ingredients referred to as “incidental ingredients.” These are ingredients that typically have no technical or functional effect on the product and, under this suggested program, would not be required to be listed.