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Have you been ‘greenwashed’ by eco products?

Greenwash

Green cleaning is great for the conscience, but is it really that good for the environment? Do your eco products live up to the hype that’s printed on their labels?

Green has gone mainstream, which means the green pound is big business. Supermarkets dedicate whole shelves to products that can help make us feel like we’re doing our bit.

But I’m a bit of a scrooge about the idea you can buy your way to greenness. Part of me suspects that ‘green’ products are being sold to me not because of the decline of the hedgerow, or to save the fish, but because there’s money to be made.

Approach eco products with caution

And I’m not alone. Which? research found that people are pretty cynical about green claims – and that sometimes it’s justified. We discovered that some of the claims that come on these products are poorly explained, exaggerated or in some cases simply false.

Take the iron that has an eco setting – except it’s just a standard iron with a relabelled dial. Or the loo cleaner that boldly states it doesn’t contain phosphates. All well and good – except none of the standard loo cleaners we’ve looked at contain phosphates.

Many eco cleaning products state that they’re better for rivers and waterways but the claims we looked at weren’t backed up by enough evidence.

So if you’re out shopping and the green claim on the packet isn’t explained or it’s not clear why it’s better for the environment than the product next to it, proceed with caution.

What makes a product ‘green’?

It’s not all black and white though. What did shake my scepticism is that it’s not all about what’s in the bottle or even what they’re claiming. Sometimes it’s about how the product was made to begin with.

Many of the eco cleaning products we looked at are made using sustainable ingredients and many of the companies who produce them work hard to reduce the carbon footprint that comes with manufacturing anything.

But the question still remains: why are they feeding my scepticism when a clear explanation of what makes their products ‘green’ could go such a long way to restoring my faith?

Do you buy eco products and do you trust the green claims they’re making? Have you bought a product that upon reflection you suspect isn’t that green after all?

Comments
Guest
jojo says:
22 July 2010

I've been buying 'green' cleaning stuff for ages now and I'm quite gutted to hear they can't live up to what they claim. But I do find it quite hard to believe that they aren't kinder to the environment than conventional cleaners – they seem so much harsher in comparison. Surely those bright yellow toilet cleaners are worse than the Ecover one?

Guest
Richard says:
22 July 2010

I dunno about those yellow toilet cleaners. One snag with the eco stuff seems to me to be that it all goes into the same water treatment plants anyway. OK, so that's not the end of the story, but just how important is the impact on aquatic life systems and the ecosystem in general?

Profile photo of Julia Clarke
Guest

I just want a clear system that tells me I'm buying products that do least damage to the environment, without having to have a degree in the subject.

The sooner the experts can agree on that, the better!

Guest
Ren says:
23 July 2010

The products may be hype..
but the effect on the rivers, land, animals and humans that a vast majority of products create is devestating, altering the very genetics of life. No I am not into scare mongering – just facts.
Just research the ingredients on the back of a toilet cleaner..

Guest
Paul Bishop says:
23 July 2010

I think many of the green claims seem very selective in the comparisons they make. There is probably little doubt that trains use less fuel than planes per passenger mile. However planes just need a runway at each end. When railways are built huge amounts of energy is used making cuttings, building bridges and tunnels. Much of this is already in place but there are still major projects like the new line from London to Birmingham and the recently built lines to mainland Europe. In addition the thousands of miles of railway line and overhead cables can't last forever. The energy used replacing these must be huge

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Guest

One of the difficulties I find is with the Eco products which claim "doesnt contain XYZ" when the same could be said of most of the normal big brands.

Guest
pickle says:
24 July 2010

They may be ok for the environment, but most work inefficiently or not bat all. I prefer to use something which cleans properly. Sewage works usually have a treatment which neutralises undesirable chemicals.

Guest
David McGuinness says:
24 July 2010

I do not trust any product that claims to be Eco friendly. It is just a marketing ploy

Guest
Pete Massingham says:
25 July 2010

There is undoubtedly an opportunity for making money on misleading claims for being eco friendly, but some products are more adverse on the environment than others. You need a little patience to see/research what these chemicals might be, but this is a good thing in the long term. Personally, I have little time for people who deny the fact we have severely poisoned our environment to the point where various life forms can no longer thrive. Our idea that things are clean only if they have that glaring white finish from chemical enhancers is naive! This is our kids futures, and other species futures we are considering. Unfortunately, sewage works do not remove the contaminants as many believe. We all use too much of stuff we really do not need. The cleaning companies have conditioned people into thinking we face disease or catastrophe if we don’t squirt, mix, or spray this or that chemical into the atmosphere or water supply. It’s economic engineering at it’s worst and Government needs to take the lead on regulating it. They wont of course, because they are stuck in a system of capital profiteering which feeds their tax demands. So, some products are genuinely eco friendly and some are a rip off. It’s up to you to read a little on the web to ascertain what the real facts are!

Guest
alan says:
25 July 2010

i have just changed my electricity supplier from NIE to Airtricity who promote their supply as Green at a 8% guaranteed discount to september 2011.
When pushed, the rep admitted that my electricity would not be Green and if I wanted Green energy they could supply but at the same price that I was currently paying before the change.
So Green is just a con!!!

Guest
graham whitlock says:
27 July 2010

Sadly the climate change. global warming eco friendly industry appears to be turning all of this into a money making idea. We are paying more for getting less. Look at road tax now on cars, I have just renewed mine and paid £205 but will it improve the roads? of course not.

Profile photo of dave d
Guest

"Once bitten twice shy".
I’ve used quite a few Ecover products for several years – washing powder, fabric softener, hand soap and dishwasher tablets being the main ones. I find that hey work extremely well and that my fabrics, etc., end up smelling of nothing at all or of a slight natural-smelling scent, rather than a horrible "Blackpool pleasure beach" sickly sweet chemical smell.
BUT ….. they don’t half cost compared to conventional products, even when I get the bottles refilled at a local store which has the Ecover refill system in place – something else that I like about them.
Then to read the Which report and fins that in fact many mainstream products, at a fraction of the price, as as kind to the environment really shook me, coming as it did after I had an EXCEPTIONALLY bad experience with a white goods item.
Without going into all the gory details on here, my 26 year old washer finally became irreparable and I had to buy new. As I have solar water heating I wanted one with a hot water inlet and I also wanted one with good energy efficiency. I ended up with a premium priced model which, from day 1, was a huge let down: it didn’t take in any hot water at all, despite the hot valve and enviro claims, it washed very badly and rinsed even more badly, worse still it used around 4 times as much electricity for a wash than my old one had but worst of the lot it was terribly unreliable and the service under warranty was diabolical (9 weeks to get a part the first time). The upshot was that when it blew up the 3rd time in less than 2 years (and it had a 10 year guarantee on the motor!) I scrapped it (NOT environmentally friendly at all) and bought a 2nd hand 23 year old one which now washes far better than the "new" one, and best of all, uses less than a third of the power the "new" one did to do a wash.
I’m sorry, but the Which report on cleaning products and the washer experience have made me change from Eco warrior to Eco sceptic. How can we ever trust the claims when we have experiences like these?

Guest
Petor says:
29 July 2010

I have just bought a new washing machine (a best buy in Which?) and it has three "Eco Cycles" that wash with cold water. Has anyone any experience of these and are they any good?

Profile photo of dave d
Guest

Petor – my limited experience of Eco cycles is that they make the wash times ridiculously long (for example on one machine I have seen in action, just over 3 hours for an "easy care" cycle) and that the cleaning results are really very poor – mediocre at best.
I have heard tell that in a worst case scenario the energy used to operate the motor in the machine for the extended cycle could equal that which would be used on a cycle which heated the water up as normal and only ran for half the time or less.
A good place to look for detailed information is the whitegoodshelp web site – if you Google washerhelp you should find it.
One manufacturer that I know of makes a machine which takes in hot water from the cylinder or boiler in your home and then washes at whatever temperature that is, with no extra heating at all. It only does this on cycles which are "hot", e.g cottons, as the water in your cylinder could be too hot for woollens or non-fast colours. If you have solar water heating this should be a great advantage to you, However, although I know that the machine exists, I do not yet know anyone who has bought it so I have no hands-on stories of success or otherwise.

Guest
Pete from Ecover says:
3 August 2010

Hello, it’s Pete from Ecover here. We noticed that a couple of you have mentioned us in the comments so thought we’d take the chance to respond and hopefully set a couple of things straight.

Firstly, it seems that there’s some confusion about how to tell if a product is truly ecological or not. This is important feedback for us and we’re now planning to look at how we can communicate the way we operate more clearly and transparently. In the meantime, we hope what we’ve written below will go some way to explain our principles and products.

We can easily understand why so many people feel cynical about eco products – a lot of companies are making misleading claims, but we’re not one of them. We were geniunely disappointed when we read the Which? Report on cleaning products which called some of our claims "greenwash" – specifically that their experts had found "no convincing evidence to show that [our product] had a different impact on aquatic life than the market leader once it had been through a waste treatment plant".

We would expect water to be clean at the end of the treatment process regardless of the products used. It would be a scandalous abuse of tax payer money if that were not the case.
What the report didn’t take into account was that not all waste water will necessarily go through a waste treatment plant. What’s more, the persistent chemicals removed during that process don’t just magically disappear – they end up in the sludge which is then dumped either in the sea, on land or incinerated, which we think gives you a pretty good reason to choose ingredients that are rapidly biodegradable in both aerobic and anaerobic circumstances.

It’s not just about ingredients, of course – we believe in making sure everything we do is sustainable. We’re contstantly investing in research to ensure our products are as ecological as possible whilst maintaining maximum effectiveness. We conduct careful and conscientious selection and development of ingredients. We have built ecological factories built using recycled and recyclable materials, use the minimum amount of water and recycling waste water, maximise natural light and using a "living" roof for added insulation.

It’s only taking these aspects (and many more) of our business into account that we can claim our products are ecological (we never call them environmentally friendly; you can read why in this article from The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/green-living/green-cleaning-theres-the-scrub-2030312.html ).

Sorry for such a long post, but we wanted to take the time to explain our position to you. We’d welcome any further comments and feedback you have.

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Guest

Hi Pete, thanks for your post, we’re really glad Ecover is looking to improve how they communicate their eco messages to consumers. We’d love to hear more about your plans and share what our members have told us about green issues. We’ll get in touch to see if you’d like to discuss further.

Profile photo of dave d
Guest

Very interesting to read Pete’s info direct from Ecover.
I am especially pleased to learn about the factories and so on and their construction.
Clearly all manufacturers have to make a profit – otherwise they would not survive – and I don’t wish to suggest that Ecover should reveal any details of their profits and so on beyond which appears in their normal annual accounts which maybe scrutinized like any other company. However, my only message back to Pete would be to ask whether Ecover can persuade more shops – especially the big supermarkets like Waitrose, M&S and the Co-Op who are always shouting about their green credentials, to have Ecover refill stations in store.
Here in Sheffield, to the best of my knowledge, only one small health food shop has the refill system. It’s great and I do use it, but it is far from convenient and being a tiny shop they don’t have everything in either. Compared to the supermarket prices there is a massive saving, in addition to the reduction in packaging materials, so Ecover could be far more attractive to so many people if the refills were more readily available.

Natalie and Colleagues at Which? – could this be an item that you look at next time you assess Supermarkets? Investigating their willingness to have such systems in place might be quite a powerful thing?

(Out of interest – Pete – I would like to get Rinse Aid, Bathroom Cleaner and Limescale Remover refills, which the health food shop say are not currently available from Ecover, and I would like to be able to get the 10Kg sacks of non-bio washing powder without having to special order them (this is not because that’s the only way Ecover do them, it’s because the shop is so small they don’t have space to keep them in). If the supermarkets (I shop mostly at Waitrose and sometimes at the Co-Op but any would be good) had the refill system in I am sure that they woudl have space to store the full range, even the bulky items.)

Profile photo of chris
Guest

Tried them
had to run washing TWICE
then use a proper brand.

So a single usage with a proper brand more eco-friendly for waste and energy use

Guest

Ihave been using eco products for a while now. Alot of them are great but there are soooo much more expensive the budget brands and at the end of the day, I’ve got bills to pay. The government needs to get off their backsides and put a ban on phosphates in detergents and improve sewerage treatment works. Why would you buy ecover dishwasher tablets for £4 for 25 tabs when you can get tesco value tabs for £1.71 for 30 tabs.

Guest
Diana Price says:
28 April 2011

I’ve been using Ecover for years, yes they are more expensive, you do get a better product, and their dosing like most detergents tend to be on the higher dosages, use less if you can.
I bought a mago ball to descale my water which helps, buy my fabric conditioner at the health food shop, 5ltrs, cheaper, and easier to refill, like all the other brands they have offers, stock up!! Or buy in bulk.
Use vinegar, for descaling kettles etc, I tend to use it hot, and find it works better that way, Ecover have lots of different sorts of products, most can be ordered online, or at a proper health food shop.

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Guest

Hi,

we use to use ecover products but moved to BIO-D and have had no problems with them, for washing, washing machine and use faith in nature for the dishwasher. Our washing machine and dishwasher are both ISE products an eco wash takes 90 minutes so its not to long and actually cleans as well 🙂

Profile photo of terfar
Guest

Being kind to the environment is a complicated subject. The best buy conventional washing detergents wash quickly (30 minutes) using less water at a lower temperature. Using so called green cleaning agents that take longer, require a higher temperature and make unsubstantiated green claims is not achieving anything except for costing more money and sometimes more effort.

Guest
giles says:
28 June 2012

I have found Ecover products to be excellent. The washing power seems to have improved too. In this article I feel Which should have investigated more fully before putting people off using sustainable products. Thats just not acting responsibly. I don’t want a wesbsite telling me just the cheapest and most effective. I increasingly want a website telling me which is the most sustainable. Which is not doing this well enough.

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Guest

I belong to http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/ which I believe fits your requirement. It’s like “WHICH” but only deals with things on an ethical viewpoint. Plus it’s a lot cheaper than WHICH membership.

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Guest

Hello Giles, the goal of this Conversation was to explore whether eco products offer the same results, and equally whether they can back up their claims. However, the key goal was to get your opinions on eco cleaning products, so thank you for your feedback.