American Cleaning Institute CEO Rosenberg seeks clarity in sustainability claims

21 January 2011 11:18  [Source: ICB]

American Cleaning Institute CEO Ernie Rosenberg seeks to cut through the chaos and help send an unambiguous message to consumers

The proliferation of seals and certifications touting the environmental benefits of products has grown in recent years as marketers aim to capture the environmentally conscious consumer's attention. But some claims are too generic, confusing or even misleading consumers into believing that one product is, across the board, environmentally preferable to another. This problem has attracted the attention of regulators and is a major concern for trade body the American Cleaning Institute (ACI).



"It's chaos out there in the market because there are so many different programs with so many different criteria," says Ernie Rosenberg, ACI president and CEO. A claim may relate to only one particular aspect of a product, but that fact might not be apparent to consumers, he says.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has set out to address the confusion with proposed revisions to its Green Guides, which aim to steer marketers into qualifying their green product claims. The revised guides advise against making general claims that a product is environmentally friendly or eco friendly because "such claims are likely to suggest that the product has specific and far-reaching environmental benefits," the agency says.

The FTC also cautions against using "unqualified" seals and certifications, or those that do not specify the basis for the certification. How consumers perceive claims such as degradable, compostable and "free of" a particular substance is also questionable. For example, the commission says: "If a marketer claims that a product that is thrown in the trash is 'degradable,' it should decompose in a 'reasonably short period of time' - no more than one year."

Additions to the guides include the use of "renewable materials" and "renewable energy" claims, which consumers may interpret differently from how marketers intend, the FTC says. For example, the guides caution marketers against using unqualified renewable energy claims "if the power used to manufacture any part of the product was derived from fossil fuels."

Carbon offset claims are another addition to the revised guides. Marketers are urged to disclose if greenhouse gas emission reductions that are being offset by a consumer's purchase will not occur within two years. They are also advised to avoid advertising an offset if the activity that produces it is already required by law.

The commission is now reviewing public comments on the proposed revisions.

"The FTC is saying that if you make a general claim, you have to specify which aspect of the product's performance or content is underpinning the claim," says Rosenberg. "The guides will help bring some order to this by making the claims relate to what are the real benefits to these products."

The ACI supports the FTC's efforts to clear up dubious claims, but has asked it to clarify the final guidelines "so companies know what they do and do not need to do" when making claims. "Our companies would like to see a very clear roadmap of what is OK and what is not," says Rosenberg.

"This is very important to us because it is the first - perhaps the only - thing that will really impose discipline on the claims that are being made. This is the first effort that addresses the validity of these claims."

At present, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA's) Design for the Environment (DfE) is the only government program that certifies products as being environmentally preferable, says Rosenberg. The DfE voluntary initiative allows manufacturers that meet set criteria to use the DfE label, which "enables consumers to quickly identify and choose products that can help protect the environment and are safer for families," the EPA says.

Last year, the ACI shared a victory with the US-based Consumer Specialty Products Association and the Canadian Consumer Specialty Products Association when the EPA developed product ingredient communication criteria under DfE that is similar to the trade groups' own initiative. Launched last January, the trade groups' initiative gives member companies the option to list ingredients on product labels; on the websites of the manufacturer, distributor or importer; via a toll-free telephone number; or through other non-electronic means.

Meanwhile, reform of the EPA's Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) remains one of the ACI's top priorities. "We still want to see the TSCA modernized," says Rosenberg. "This has been a top priority
"It's chaos out there in the market because there are so many different programs with so many different criteria"
Ernie Rosenberg
President and CEO, American Cleaning Institute 
for us in 2009 and 2010." A modernized TSCA would boost public confidence in responsible management and regulation of chemicals, he adds.

Several areas under the TSCA are of particular concern, including the EPA's request to limit the number of confidential business information (CBI) claims for ingredients, says Rosenberg. The ACI seeks protection of "legitimate" CBI claims because many CBI claims involve proprietary ingredients, he adds.

Companies spend a lot of time and money on product innovations that involve proprietary information, which should be protected from competitors, says Rosenberg. Without this, companies risk the release of proprietary information or trade secrets in areas where they have spent heavily, such as green chemistry and sustainability.

"You can have greener products. You can release all the information about the product that the companies consider confidential. You can't have both," he adds.

Rosenberg says the protection of confidential business information "is popping up in a number of places," including under California's Green Chemistry Initiative. This initiative focuses on consumer product ingredients and, when possible, substituting safer alternatives.

California is the eleventh-largest economy in the world and its regulations could have consequences for manufacturers nationwide, says Rosenberg. "We are spending a lot of effort to make sure the California provisions are risk-based and aren't just blacklists for certain chemicals."

A key component of the initiative is the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC's) proposed regulations for Safer Consumer Product Alternatives. These would create a process for prioritizing chemicals of concern and encourage safer alternatives.

The ACI is part of the Green Chemistry Alliance (GCA) trade group association, which is calling for the DTSC to remain focused on a science-based system of chemical management. The DTSC revised its proposed regulations last year, but problems remain, according to the GCA.

"One of the largest continuing problems is a failure to enunciate more clearly the criteria and process for consistently and systematically identifying and prioritizing chemicals of concern and priority products," the GCA told the agency in a recent letter. "Instead of a process, the regulations focus on three product categories for a five-year period, after which time all restraint is lifted."

Other areas the ACI is focusing on this year include its first sustainability report, which will cover the activities of the institute and its member firms. "Our big issues are chemical management and sustainability," says Rosenberg, "and industry has not always been given a lot of credit, especially for the latter." The sustainability report may help fix that by highlighting, for example, various ways that companies are saving energy, water, and other resources, he adds.

The report will include aggregated sustainability metrics data from some member firms, which might be used as future benchmarks for industry, the ACI says. The report is due to be available to the public on the institute's website this spring.

Sustainability also plays a role in many recent product innovations. "Some firms are focusing on concentrated detergents, some on reducing packaging, others on cold water detergents, and others are using animal and vegetable oils as their main feedstocks," says Rosenberg.

"Everybody has different things they're working on. That's why developing sustainability programs that cut across all companies is difficult. On a practical level, it makes sense to focus on metrics that can be applied across the board, such as energy and water reduction."

Although demand for more sustainable products is coming largely from big-box retailers and some consumer groups, says Rosenberg, "it is not really clear how much of a real difference it is making yet." He adds: "We are seeing some indications of 'green fatigue' - people are getting tired. Market share growth in the 'green product' category, based on some studies and anecdotal evidence, has been slow."

Even so, more cold water detergents and higher-efficiency detergents and machines are expected to hit the market in coming years. Phosphates were removed from home dishwashing detergents last July, and research and development (R&D) is underway to make them more efficient.

Surfactants are also getting a lot of R&D dollars. Rosenberg says product development areas include "surfactants that work well in cold water cleaners, work well in concentrated formulas, and surfactants that are increasingly biodegradable." But these are not the only area of innovation work. Rosenberg says "a lot of work" is being done to develop more environmentally friendly ingredients and reduce waste overall.

For more on sustainability initiatives, read Doris de Guzman's Green Chemicals blog

Author: Esther D'Amico

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