Do green claims on multi-purpose cleaners stack up?

Killing up to 99.9% of cleaning product claims.

Bottle of "Natural" multi-purpose cleaner

From the claims on the bottles, you’d be forgiven for thinking many household cleaners were nature’s own recipe. Eleven of the 17 brands in our latest multi-purpose cleaners test made some claim to “greenness”. However, a lot of these claims are at best meaningless, and at worst misleading.

The "green" claims

“Biodegradable”

Is it useful? No.

“Biodegradable” claims turned up on five cleaners we tested. By itself, the claim is meaningless – most things biodegrade eventually. What you need to know to make the claim useful is whether the product’s been tested for biodegradability and what the test found.

Only one cleaner, Cyclone Spray & Wipe, stated it complied with the Australian Standard for Biodegradability of Surfactants (AS4351), but the pack didn’t state what this meant. There are two biodegradability tests in the standard: one that shows 80% of a substance biodegrades within 21 days and the other where 50% breaks down within that time.

Cyclone said the cleaner’s main ingredients were tested and found to be between 60% to 90% biodegradable within 21 to 28 days. Cyclone didn’t test the product itself, relying on information provided by its suppliers.

“Natural”

Is it useful? No.

“Natural" has become a marketing catchphrase, but it’s so general it’s meaningless. The same goes for claims such as, “environmentally friendly”, “green” and “pure”. Our advice: ignore them.

Some products are keen to tout their natural or “plant-based” ingredients even though they also contain synthetic ones. Living Green’s cleaner boasted it “used only the purest natural ingredients”, but it contained the synthetic preservative phenoxyethanol. When we questioned the company, it changed the wording.

“Not tested on animals”

Is it useful? Sometimes.

Leaping bunny and cruelty free logo
Recognised logos include Cruelty Free International’s “Leaping Bunny” and PETA’s “Cruelty-free” stamp.

A “not tested on animals” claim is useful if the company has independent certification to back it up. There’s a range of logos on products but not all of them are the real deal. Recognised logos include Cruelty Free International’s “Leaping Bunny” and PETA’s “Cruelty-free” stamp. Seventh Generation had the “Leaping Bunny” while Eco Store and Earthwise had PETA’s stamp.

Eco Planet designed its own cruelty-free logo, while Living Green said its cruelty-free claim was assessed as part of its US Natural Products Association accreditation. Likewise, Orchard Organic’s BioGro certification checks that products aren’t animal tested.

“Phosphate free”

Is it useful? No.

Phosphate-free claims on multi-purpose cleaners risk misleading consumers. These products usually don’t contain phosphates, so “phosphate free” claims tout a benefit that isn’t really relevant. Three cleaners in our test were labelled phosphate free: Dettol Sparkling Orange, Earthwise and Seventh Generation.

Earthwise has previously been warned by the Commerce Commission for using phosphate-free claims on its household cleaning products. The commission considered the claims risked misleading consumers as most comparable products didn’t contain the ingredient.

“Plant-based”

Is it useful? No.

Like “natural” claims, “plant-based” claims don’t tell you much about a product’s environmental impacts or its toxicity. These claims can also turn up on products that contain synthetic preservatives and fragrances.

Making greener choices

Despite the raft of green claims on offer, none of the six top-performing cleaners in our test had certification from an independent eco-labelling scheme such as Environmental Choice.

Picking a greener product is difficult because cleaners don’t have to list their ingredients. To get around this, we’re investigating how we can test cleaning products to assess their environmental impacts. We’ll keep you posted on progress.

In the meantime, here’s our advice if you want to make greener choices:

  • Try products you’ve already got at home, such as baking soda or vinegar. They may work just as well as many cleaners on the market. In our latest test 14 cleaners scored only 1% to 3% better than vinegar.
  • If you’re buying cleaners, ignore the green hype. Look for independent claims and evidence backing them up.
  • With any cleaning product, use just enough to get the job done.

Septic tank-safe?

Seven multi-purpose cleaner brands were labelled septic tank-safe and four were also labelled grey-water safe. However, there’s no recognised standard to test whether products meet these claims so it’s left up to manufacturers, said Glen Burr, president of the New Zealand Plumbing, Drainlayers and Gasfitters Association.

If you have a septic tank...“avoid bleach and antibacterial products because they’ll kill the bacteria needed to keep your septic tank working”.

30 Seconds said its product is tested by an independent chemist, while Earthwise, Eco Planet, Living Green, Seventh Generation and EcoStore made their own assessments based on the ingredients.

Simple Green uses the ingredients assessed by the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice programme. However, this is based on a paper review of the ingredients, rather than testing the product in the lab.

If you have a septic tank, Mr Burr’s advice is to “avoid bleach and antibacterial products because they’ll kill the bacteria needed to keep your septic tank working”.

Other logos

Environmental Choice logo
Environmental Choice is New Zealand's official environmental label and independently operated.

Ecostore and Eco Planet cleaners carry the Enviro-Mark logo. Enviro-Mark is a certification scheme for companies’ environmental management systems – these are the processes they have for managing the environmental impacts of their business operation. However, the scheme doesn’t assess individual products.

Living Green cleaners have certification from the US Natural Products Association (NPA), an industry body. Products can get its tick if a minimum of 95% of ingredients are derived from renewable resources, with the remainder limited to approved synthetics.

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