What green product labels really mean.

Greetings greenies! How’s your green living journey going so far? We hope that you are enjoying the recent posts and that you are trying out some of our DIY tips and tricks, recipes, and sustainable product substitutions. Today we are revealing the truth behind the labels we read on the products we buy, specifically those found on household cleaning products. Why does this matter? Well, it turns out that not all of the labels and logos that you see are 100% truthful or accurate. I mean, what makes a product “green”, “safe” and “environmentally friendly” anyway? Let’s find out…


You probably see this label everywhere but what you probably don’t know is that there is no official government definition or regulation for what can be called all-natural. What does this mean?

It means that a product can contain as little or as much all-natural ingredients as the company would like and there is no one to say otherwise.

When a product says all-natural it usually means that some portion of the product is derived from plants or animals. Again, it can be a little or a lot. It also generally means that it is not derived from petroleum. It basically means the ingredients were not created synthetically in a lab. And when you think about that, any number of ingredients can be considered all-natural.


When you dispose of a product which is biodegradable, you can rest assured that it will break down easily in the environment. Biodegradable products are typically safer for the environment, however some substances and ingredients can biodegrade into more harmful substances. This can have a negative effect on our rivers, streams and landfills!

For example, when biodegradable goods break down in crowded landfills, the lack of oxygen has an adverse effect. The goods release methane and carbon dioxide, 2 of the most potent greenhouse gases. An easy fix to this issue? Recycle.


Eco Friendly or environmentally friendly is “regulated” by the Federal Trade Commission (F.T.C.) . The F.T.C. says that any product that makes a claim of being eco friendly must have verifiable data available to back-up the claim. They also suggest that products highlight their specific environmental benefits.

Those qualifications should also be clear, prominent, and specific. Small or minor environmental benefits should not be highlighted. In general, an eco friendly product can be considered one that has a net benefit on the environment.

You can find the F.T.C. definition for a number of different green marketing claims here.


Toxic = bad for your health. It has been estimated that the average consumer uses 25 gallons of toxic chemical products each year in the home. We often see products with the warning: not to be ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin. This is a sure sign that what you are using contains toxins. So, clearly non-toxic products are deemed safer for your health and additionally for the environment. However, most research shows that the term “non-toxic” is often used as a marketing tool. The Consumer Product Safety Commission warns that just because a product may not fit the textbook definition of “toxic” does not mean that it is in fact safe. Just because a product is not proven to cause cancer or personal injury does not mean that it is free of toxins.

So what the hell are we to do?! Read carefully. Does the bottle also say “Danger!”, “Caution!” or “Warning!”? If so, replace it with an environmentally safe cleaning product, or make your own. And remember to recycle when disposing of the container!


This is another tricky term. Green can actually encompass a number of different claims. A product can be green because it contains recyclable materials, or because its non-toxic, or its made with renewable energy.  The problem seems to be that the word “green” can mean so many different things that its hard to establish a firm definition.


When a product uses the label renewable it can either be referring to renewable energy or materials. Accordingly, a company who makes a product that uses renewable energy will have used renewable sources, like wind, solar or geothermal during the entire production process.

A product that uses renewable material uses raw materials that regenerate faster than they are used in production. Think about the bamboo in that bamboo toothbrush you use – it probably grows faster than it is cut down. Not all parts of the product have to be made from renewable material but the product should specify which parts of it are made from renewable sources.

We would suggest that you treat this word like you would the term eco friendly in that it should be supported by specific environmental benefits. However, do not confuse these for the Green Seal which is a third party certification that uses some of the highest standards for certification.


Photo credit: artizone via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Products which are truly organic typically contain the U.S Department of Agriculture’s “Certifiably Organic” logo. Organic products are defined as: free of plants that have been grown with synthetic fertilizers and/or pesticides. However, the term organic can also be used in reference to minerals and animal products. Examples of organic ingredients to look out for are:

  • waxes
  • oils
  • botanical extracts
  • vitamins
  • citric acids
  • salts


If you are at all confused by the myriad of logo and label out there Ecolabel Index has an extensive list of hundreds of labels and their meaning.




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