Researching products and their impact on the environment

(First published March 2009, updated May 2011)
 Ever wondered whether ingredient X or compound Y is reallyenvironmentally friendly? Not sure what’s in the products you use?Confused by manufacturer babble? You’re certainly not alone. 
With so many products claiming their green goodness in eloquent, fluffylanguage it can be quite a job for consumers to cut through the spin todetermine if a product lives up to its eco-claims. Even figuring outwhat’s in “normal” products and their effect on the environment can bequite a challenge. 

A while back I published an article on researching mysteriousingredientsand “nature identical” labelling; but that was related to food items.In this article we’ll take a look at how you can track down furtherinformation on a variety of other goods we use regularly such ascosmetics, hair care products, cleaning materials and more.

Step 1: Identifying greenwashing

Put simply, don’t believe the hype. Go beyond the marketing message and ask questions. Here’s an example.

Recently, a PR company approached me wanting me to write an item onwell known mainstream brand’s range of “green” laundry detergents. 

PR company + well known mainstream brand = immediate suspicion

That might sound a little paranoid and prejudiced, but big brands havea lot of marketing dollars. They can spend a fortune on developingmessages that maximise the positives and minimize the environmentalnegatives of their products. This is a science as much as it is an artas it works on exploiting chinks in our psychological armour.

Still, I asked for more information as clothes washingis an area of consumption that contributes a great deal to ourenvironmental impact – and if there’s products out there to lessen it,I love to know about them.

I specifically asked the company for an ingredients list. What cameback was incredibly vague and mentioned (in glowing terms) only acouple of components of the product that were of course quiteenvironmentally friendly. It’s what was left out that I suspect wouldreveal the true nature of the product to be not as green as they tout.Further research confirmed that.

A conscious attempt to portray a product as being more environmentallyfriendly than it actually is, is called greenwashing – and the practicecomes in all sorts of forms with the goal of distracting the consumerfrom delving too deeply. You can learn more about the tricks and trapsin my article on avoidinggreenwashing.

My thoughts are if you contact a company wanting to know aboutingredients and components in relation to environmental impact and theyare vague about it; don’t waste your time any further, take it asmeaning there’s something being hidden – and don’t be fooled by “I’msorry, that’s a trade secret” spiel. 

While approaching companies directly is a good method, you can bypass the potential spin by using the web.

Household products

One of the best resources I’ve come across for tracking down information on thousands of products used around the home is the Household Products Databaseof the National Library of Medicine. This database contains informationon over 8,000 consumer brands and is very user friendly. 

Categories include:

Cleaningand related
Yardand garden
Arts& Crafts
HomeOfficeOr you can search by productnames, typesof products, manufacturersor ingredients

While the results are more focused on human health and toxicity, youcan drill down by clicking links on the various chemicals listed to getmore information. Alternatively, you can just copy the chemical nameand run a query on a search engine such as Google like so:

“Sodium lauryl sulfate” environment

By the way, Sodium lauryl sulfate is commonly found in products thatlather, such as in shampoo, toothpaste and detergents. It doesn’t breakdown easily and it toxic to aquatic creatures. 

Cosmetics and hair care

Along with the Household Products Database, I’ve often referred to the cosmeticdatabase Skin Deepwhen researching information for articles relating to cosmetics andhair care products. Skin deep is is a safety guide run by theEnvironmental Working Group. It pairs ingredients in more than 42,000products against 50 definitive toxicity and regulatory database.

You can enter a brand name or an ingredient and receive results alongwith hazard scores, both for the product overall and for it’sindividual components. The hazard rating of a product can be higherthan for its individual ingredients — it adds up the hazards of allingredients. The hazard score is on 0-10 scale, with 10 being the worstpossible rating.

As with the Household products database, you can click on particularcompounds to learn more or perform a search such as suggested above.

Pesticides and herbicides

Pesticides and herbicides are by their very nature not environmentallyfriendly – otherwise they wouldn’t work. However there are degrees oftoxicity, particularly in relation to non-target species. You can learnmore about the chemicals in various brands using the Crop Data Management Systems database which contains information on herbicides and pesticides from over 100 manufacturers.


Both the Skin Deep and Household Products database are veryUS-centric. That’s not a major problem as so many of the brands we usein other countries contain the same ingredients as the correspondingbrand in the USA. From time to time though, there will be ingredientsbanned in other countries that aren’t in the USA and vice versa; so abrand may have different formulas for the same products in differentcountries.

One way to get local information is to directly consult a global MSDS database; which the above services also draw on. 

MSDS stands for Material Safety Data Sheet. An MSDS containsinformation regarding the properties of a product such as toxicity,health effects and spill handling procedures. They can be somewhatvague on environmental effects, but again, you’ll be able to get alisting of chemicals contained in a product to research further byrunning a search on your favorite search engine using the chemical namealong with the word “environment”.

A great MSDS search engine can be found at Just enter the product name and listings for that product’s components in various countries will be displayed.

Keep things in perspective

When I first started really getting into researching products I wasshocked at how just about everything was “bad”. I arrived at theconclusion I should be naked, live out in the open and only eat rocks.That of course is a little unrealistic.Rocks really don’t taste all that good as well as being incredibly hardto digest. Being naked in winter presents some problems too.

Just about everything we consume has some sort of negativeenvironmental impactthese days – whether it’s the ingredients themselves, how theingredients were sourced, the packaging, the transport to get it to usand so on. It’s sometimes just a matter of choosing the lesser of theevils so to speak; finding products with minimal impact.

For example, lets say a product you use a lot of contains a substancethat’s particularly environmentally unfriendly and there doesn’t seemto be any alternatives. In that situation, sometimes the best thing youcan do is to find a brand of that product that contains less of thenasty substance if it can still achieve the same outcome until suchtime that greener alternatives appear on the market.

Another scenario – Brand X has a chemical that’s environmentally toxic and Brand Y has a different chemical that is also veryun-green – the question you should ask yourself is which of the two is less damaging.

Yet another example: Product X and Product Y have exactly the same ingredients, but X issold in packaging thatcan be recycled and Y isn’t – so go for X.

Thankfully, having to make these sorts of tough decisions is slowlybecoming less of an issue as there aremore green alternatives for so much of what we now. While the processof sorting out the green from the garbage can be a little exhausting atfirst, over time you’ll be able to more easily recognise issues such as greenwashing and to have a general idea of the impact of X chemical is without having to run to the nearest Internet connection.

Something else to bear in mind – as with everything related toliving a greener life, it’s not just the product choices we make, buthow much we use of them. Think lean when going green – it not onlyhelps conserve the environment, but also your bank balance.