LABEL REPORT CARD
|How meaningful is the label?||Is the label verified?||Is the meaning of the label consistent?||Are the label standards publicly available?||Is information about the organization publicly available?||Is the organization free from conflict of interest?||Was the label developed with broad public and industry input?|
1. There is no independent organization behind the label.
2. The producer or manufacturer decides whether to use the claim and is not free from its own self-interest.
3. While there are no standards, the FTC sought public comments for its guidance on the claim.
WHAT THIS GENERAL CLAIM MEANS:
There are no specific standards for “includes biodegradable surfactants (anionic and nonionic)” or “includes biodegradable surfactants, enzymes, and brightening agents” claims. These claims may refer to some of the ingredients in cleaning products but not necessarily to the product as a whole. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued general guidelines on how the biodegradable term should be used. According to their guidance, biodegradable should mean that a material is degradable when exposed to air, moisture, bacteria or other organisms and that the materials will break down and return to nature within a reasonable short time after customary disposal.
Surfactants (surface active agents) are major components of cleaning products. Surfactants are classified according to their electrical charge: anionic (negative charge), nonionic (no charge), cationic (positive charge) and amphoteric (either positive or negative charge). Anionic surfactants are effective in removing particulates (dirt, dust) and oily solids. Soap is an anionic surfactant. Nonionic surfactants are less seriously affected by water hardness and are especially useful in products designed to require little rinsing. However, neither is environmentally preferable.
Other ingredients in cleaning products include enzymes (proteins that help break down soils), antimicrobial agents (see separate entry), and bleaching or brightening agents (which act as soil and stain removers).
Foods, drugs, and cosmetics are required to list their ingredients (with a few exceptions, such as fragrances in cosmetics), but household cleaning products are not required to disclose their ingredients (except for disinfectants or other ingredients considered to be antimicrobial pesticides).
For other similar general claims, visit label records for “biodegradable,” “biodegrades without forming microtoxins,” and “biodegradable without effluent treatment processes.”
WHO VERIFIES THIS GENERAL CLAIM?
There is no organization that verifies the use of these claims other than the company manufacturing or marketing the product, but neither the FTC nor any other organization routinely verifies the truthfulness of the claim as used on products. The FTC has issued guidance on how the term “biodegradable” should be used, and took action in the early-mind 1990’s against several companies for making unsubstantiated, misleading, and/or deceptive biodegradable claims.
CONSUMERS UNION EVALUATION:
How meaningful is the label?
The “includes biodegradable surfactants (anionic and nonionic)” and “includes biodegradable surfactants, enzymes, and brightening agents” claims are somewhat meaningful but in some cases can be misleading. They do not refer to the product as a whole (i.e. there may be non-biodegradable ingredients as well) and they are frequently misleading since many ingredients in soap and detergent products are biodegradable whether labeled as such or not.
According to FTC guidance, what a “reasonably short time” is depends on where the product is disposed. For products that go down the drain, like detergents and shampoos, FTC guidance states that “a reasonably short period of time” would be about the same time that it takes for sewage to be processed in wastewater treatment systems. Many surfactants, the major components of cleaning products, have been tested and found to be biodegradable.
Of course, just because a product or ingredient is biodegradable does not mean it is healthy or safe for you or the environment. And saying something is “biodegradable” does not tell you how long or under what conditions it will biodegrade. For example, DDT biodegrades extremely slowly, and biodegrades to the compounds DDD and DDE, both of which are more toxic and more dangerous than the original DDT.
To learn more about what is meant by this term, as applied to a specific product, consumers must contact the manufacturer. If a manufacturer has solid scientific evidence demonstrating that the product will break down and decompose into by-products found in nature in a short period of time, then claiming that it is “biodegradable” is not deceptive.
Does an organization verify that the label standards are met?
No. The FTC can investigate labels after they have been put on the market if they feel they are deceiving the consumer under section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act to prevent deception and unfairness in the marketplace. However, it does not routinely check or verify “biodegradable” claims.
Is the meaning of the label consistent?
Are the label standards publicly available?
No, there are no standards behind the label.
Is information about the standard organization publicly available?
No, there is no independent organization behind the label.
Is the organization behind the label free from conflict of interest?
No. There is no organization independently certifying this claim. The producer or manufacturer decides whether to use the claim and is not free from its own self-interest.
Was the label developed with broad public and industry input?
Yes, the FTC sought public comments when its guidelines were developed.