LOS ANGELES — Maybe 2011 is the year a clean start means returning to Grandma's scrubbing ways and getting down on hands knees with simple baking soda and vinegar. Or maybe it means staring down that supermarket aisle of cleaning products and making better choices about the dizzying selection of powders and liquids that claim not only to clean but also to be healthy for people and the planet. Sustainable, Earth-friendly, green, renewable — what do the words tell a shopper?
"The last 24 months was a real sea change as large traditional brands are introducing greener or green versions of products. I believe that trend will continue," said Jeffrey Hollender, author of a new book, Planet Home, and former chief executive of the cleaning products company Seventh Generation.
"On the industry side, it really is about sustainability all through how products are made, resourced, formulated, delivered to the store, recycled," said Brian Sansoni, a spokesman for the American Cleaning Institute, a trade group based in Washington.
One brand, Earth Friendly Products, has seen its sales quadruple in five years as it gets shelf space in Costco and supermarkets and no longer is relegated only to health-food stores, said Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, company vice president and daughter of the founder.
Clive Davies, director of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency green products labeling program, said Vlahakis-Hanks is right. "You see the biggest, most astute companies — they're all positioning themselves in recognition of that," Davies said.
An early complaint about Earth-friendly products was that if they did no harm, they did no good either — that is, they didn't clean well. But consumers no longer have to sacrifice effectiveness, Sansoni said. Products have improved, but shoppers have to wade through the "greenwash," sorting out claims for nontoxic, green, planet-friendly and other attributes without clear definitions.
One strategy: Look for the EPA's Design for the Environment seal indicating the product has met the program's sustainability criteria, which include the product's effect on human health, Davies said.
In 2003, 43 products qualified for the seal. Now more than 2,000 products from 300 manufacturers qualify, including store brands, "green" companies such as Method and Seventh Generation as well as older manufacturers such as SC Johnson and Colgate-Palmolive, Davies said. Most products don't earn the seal the first time they apply, but they can change their formulas and eventually comply, he said.