Greenwashing and CBC #9: Sunlight Green Clean Laundry Detergent

Continuing from last week with #9 on the CBC Marketplace "Lousy Labels" greenwashing list is Sunlight Green Clean Laundry Detergent.

As I mentioned last week, Marketplace is a 22 minute show and they did a 10-product countdown, giving them approximately 2 minutes per product, so they had to leave a lot of information out. I am the CC so I am filling the (chemistry side) gaps, to satisfy my own curiosity.

As always, I start with the MSDS to get an ingredients list.

Chemical NameCAS-NoWeight %
TRIETHANOLAMINE102-71-61 - 5 %
Propylene Glycol57-55-61 - 5 %
Diethanolamine111-42-20.1 - 1%

...Interesting, they don't list all of the ingredients. Water isn't there, and the percentages don't add up to 100%. However just above the table on the MSDS, it says that this is only the list of hazardous chemicals per OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (29CFR § 1910.1200). Looks like only hazardous chemicals above a certain concentration have to be listed by OSHA rules. Since the point of an MSDS is to let plant and transportation workers know what hazards they are dealing with, only requiring a list of hazardous components makes sense. I'm just used to working with MSDS sheets that list all components, including the water.

Of the listed ingredients:

Triethanolamine is a surfactant and emulsifier, and it is the ingredient that makes dirt soluble in water. Some people have an allergic reaction to it when they get it on their skin, but it's listed as safe for use in cosmetics and food subject to concentration limits. It's made from ethylene, which is produced by plants as part of ripening, and also is typically produced for human use by steam cracking light hydrocarbons (usually petrochemicals).

Propylene glycol is a viscosity controller (and also skin conditioner, and many other useful things). As with triethanolamine, some people have allergic reactions to it but it's listed as safe for use. This one is made from propylene, typically made by steam cracking—it's one of many products of steam cracking, along with ethylene, above.

Diethanolamine can be used to adjust pH of the product. It's also a by-product, or rather co-product, of the production of triethanolamine. (Specifically, it's triethanolamine that didn't quite make it—it's missing one of its three ethanol groups.) With the concentration ranging from 0.1-1% I'm not sure if it's deliberately added to control pH or if it's just something that is carried along with the triethanolamine. Commercial grade triethanolamine from DOW, for example, is 15% diethanolamine; a product containing 5% triethanolamine from this source could easily have a bit below 1% diethanolamine. Not knowing the reasoning behind the recipe or what source they actually used, I can't say which it is.

Disodium distyrylbiphenyl disulfonate is a brightener. It's not a bleach; apparently it acts by absorbing UV and re-transmitting visible light. (So that's how "makes your whites whiter and your colours brighter" works...)

Ok, so the point of this article series is to look at both the product claims and at CBC Marketplace's evaluation.

Sunlight claims that the Green Clean line of laundry detergents is biodegradable, includes plant-based cleaning ingredients, and works well in cold water to save on energy usage; it also claims that it's super-concentrated to save transportation costs. It's in a green and white bottle featuring a pretty leaf and displays a seal that says it's biodegradable. One thing I noticed on the page that I really don't like is that many of the claims had footnote symbols that weren't expanded on anywhere that I could find. If it says "biodegradable*" I WANT TO SEE WHAT THAT STAR MEANS because it means there's more information in there somewhere. Maybe it was supposed to link to a study that demonstrates the biodegradation characteristics. Maybe to their product listed in a database for the "biodegradable" seal they display. Maybe to a footnote that says "well, only one of the ingredients is". I can't tell. That's not only bad form, it makes me suspicious because I can't check the references.

Marketplace claims that Green Clean has 38% petroleum-derived carbon, and thus isn't green, and makes a big deal out of the word "includes" in the description of the ingredients. They do not address the other claims.

Of Sunlight's entire response, Marketplace only quoted the first sentence. What follows is of just as much relevance, I think. The second sentence triggered my "look for references" reaction, specifically, that a laundry detergent with 34% or more of bio-based carbon qualifies for a USDA bio-preferred product label. (It's listed as "Laundry Products - General Purpose".) At 62% plant-based carbon, Green Clean clearly exceeds that lower limit for the product label. Also interesting is that Green Clean does not display the USDA bio-preferred label on the bottle even though they reference that standard when Marketplace asked why they aren't 100% plant-based. This is probably because Sunlight branded laundry detergent is sold in Canada but not the USA (hover over the "brands" menu item, they're listed with countries) so they never applied for USDA certification.

I wondered, then, why the only eco seal they have is a biodegradable indication, so I requested the EcoLogo standard (as one of the big, recognizable eco seals) for laundry detergents. As they don't make it freely available for download but want you to request it, I will not post it here, but I will say that the standard showed up in my inbox about 5 minutes after I requested it. On a weekend. Reading the standard, it didn't take long to spot at least one reason why Green Clean doesn't have the EcoLogo: that particular certification doesn't allow optical brighteners, which Green Clean uses.

The biodegradable seal displayed on the package is not listed in the Consumer Reports label database. The seal itself has no standards or testing organization information on it. Google image search (you can drop an image file in the google image search field now, did you know that?) didn't find me anything that looked like it. It's not as if there is no respectable biodegradable test organization out there. Consumer Reports lists one. Their logo is different and includes reference information. This is not conclusive evidence that they invented their own logo and tested the product to fully internal standards to get the "biodegradable in 28 days" result, but without any outside reference, there's also no proof that the seal actually means anything.

So, of the product claims:

"Includes plant-based cleaning ingredients": True, Sun Products' response and CBC Marketplace both named 62% plant-based carbon. It is not 100% but doesn't claim to be; it is significantly above a US standard for labelling the product plant-based but is not registered under this standard. I do not see a problem with this claim.

"Biodegradable": no evidence that I could find. I consider this a problem.

"Cold water washing to save energy": very common these days. I didn't test it but it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if this were true; I have used several types of cold-water laundry detergents, they work, and it does save quite a bit of energy to not heat the water.

"Concentrated to save packaging, water, and transportation costs": very common as well. There are lots of other detergents that do this. In fact, I'm trying to remember the last time I saw a laundry detergent that didn't say it was concentrated.

The CBC Marketplace claims:

It has 38% oil-derived carbon: true. The packaging does not state the percentage, which is a little bit dodgy, but it doesn't claim to be entirely plant-derived.

I would agree that this product does do some greenwashing, but I think Marketplace missed the mark in what they chose to focus on.

Sun Products have converted a substantial part of what are normally oil-derived ingredients to plant-derived ingredients, and have made several other eco-friendly choices in their formulation (mostly the claims Marketplace didn't address at all). This is a good thing, and it makes it significantly more eco-friendly than a similar detergent that still uses entirely oil-derived ingredients. No, it's not 100% perfect. I will not scorn a substantial improvement. I will also ask for continuing efforts to improve ever more.

However, that "biodegradable" logo with no identified standards organization behind it and no proof that it biodegrades into a safe end product? That's the misleading part.

Side note: the video shows Marketplace boxing up the bottle of Green Clean in a box about 10 times bigger than needed when they spoke of sending it off for oil-based vs. plant-based carbon testing. I sure hope that isn't representative of how they actually shipped the thing to the lab. What a waste of packing material and shipping & handling space. Also, I didn't see her tuck an MSDS into the box with the bottle. (You think maybe I've shipped chemicals once or twice?)

Greenwashing series:
10: Raid EarthBlends Multi-bug killer
9: Sunlight Green Clean Laundry Detergent
8: Obusforme EcoLogic Contoured pillow
7: Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner
6: Eco Collection Bath Mitt
5: Vim PowerPro Naturals
4: Organic Melt Ice Remover
3: T-fal Natura frying pan
2: Biodegradable J Cloth
1: Dawn Antibacterial Hand Soap
Final thoughts

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