The dirty little secrets of Glade, Pledge and Windex are all coming clean courtesy of venerable consumer products company SC Johnson. The Racine, Wis. outfit said last week it had launched a new website that lists the ingredients of more than 200 of its products. The WhatsInsideSCJohnson site represents the most significant disclosure to date of the ingredients found in household cleaning products.
Lack of disclosure has been a key complaint of green activists who have often alleged that many household cleaners contain toxic ingredients. Equally important, these environmental do-gooders have charged that some supposedly green products contain ingredients that are either unsafe or suspected of having strong health effects on people.
Consumers can learn from the SC Johnson site, for example, that Pledge contains Disodium Ethanoldiglycinate, a compound used for cleaning hard surfaces and hard-to remove substances. The compound can be a skin, eye and nose irritant and is mildly toxic. Or that Windex contains Propylene Glycol, a controversial compound commonly used in glass cleaners but also in toothpaste and cosmetics. It is considered safe by the U.S. FDA and the World Health Organization. But environmentalists point to studies showing it can cause skin irritation as well as liver and kidney damage.
A Green Gun Pointed at Companies' Heads
All offer product lines specifically targeting the green market. And all will have to come clean, pronto. Call it the Wal-Mart Effect (WMT). The country's largest retailer announced July 15 it will institute a new policy requiring all of its product suppliers to calculate the environmental costs of their products. These costs will then be tabulated into an easy-to-understand green rating. Wal-Mart plans to post these ratings next to the price tags on products.
This policy change amounted to a green gun pointed at the head of consumer products companies that had, until now, refused to disclose ingredients. While Wal-Mart did not explicity say it would publish ingredients, such a disclosure would be an inevitable outcome of the green-rating process and a way to differentiate products.
Current U.S. laws do not mandate full transparency on ingredients of cleaning products. Manufacturers have long claimed that revealing ingredients would release key trade secrets and make it easy to ascertain chemical formulas for these products. Environmental groups have long claims that this exclusion for products that are used in so many homes has allowed cleaning and beauty products companies, in particular, to foist unhealthy products on unsuspecting Americans.
The SC Johnson site is certainly comprehensive. A search for Fantastik reveals two types of the cleaning product. A click on the "More Detail" tab reveals that Fantastik "Orange Action" contains two cleaning ingredients; alkyl polyglycoside and ethoxylated alcohol.
Up to Consumers to Do Their Research
The SC Johnson site does not address what health risks these two products might pose to users and their families. But it does give them the exact chemical names. This allows for specific research that can conducted either by individuals or advocacy groups. To be sure, such research remains difficult as the chemical names listed still do not give sufficient information into the exact formulation of the chemicals, something that can have a great impact on toxicity. But it establishes a baseline of disclosure and can allow consumers or researchers to begin to ask the right questions regarding the hazards around ingredients in cleaning and household products.
The move is designed to build trust bewteen SCJ and its customers. "Today's families want to know what's in the products they use in their homes," SCJ Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Fisk Johnson said in a press release. "For us, it's about living up to the trust our consumers put in us."
That could be a wise move in an era where a single tweet gone viral can ruin a brand's reputation in a matter of hours and create a permanent online trail of caustic comments.
SCJ lists not only cleaning agents but also dyes, chelators and pH adjusters. Two holes remain in the new policy. SCJ will list preservative and fragrance ingredients by January 2012. Aside from online availability, SCJ will allow consumers to access the new information via product labels and a toll-free number (800-558-5252), as well.
SCJ is one of the largest privately held companies in the country, with annual revenues of $8 billion and a lineup of highly recognizable brand names. The founding family still runs the company and it shows with bold moves like this. Even product companies catering specifically to the green market have not gone as far in terms of disclosure.
So one thing is for sure. The green bar for cleaning products has just been raised quite a bit higher. Let's see how long it takes for others to follow suit.
Alex Salkever is Senior Writer at AOL Daily Finance covering technology and greentech. Follow him on twitter @alexsalkever, read his articles, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.