Greenwashing and CBC #5: Vim PowerPro Naturals

Continuing from last week with #5 on the CBC Marketplace "Lousy Labels" greenwashing list is Vim PowerPro Naturals.

As I mentioned every week, Marketplace is a 22 minute show and they did a 10-product countdown, giving them an average of 2 minutes per product, so they had to leave a lot of information out.

Vim PowerPro is, according to the manufacturer's product page, "made with 98% naturally derived ingredients including fermented citric acid."

Marketplace says that the word "natural" is totally unregulated, and without an ingredients list, they can't know what that 98% natural claim actually means.

As usual, I went looking for the MSDS, but couldn't find one online. Marketplace says they asked for an ingredients list and got "only" an MSDS, which isn't an ingredients list. Funny, that's where I've been getting my ingredients lists for this series. Wish they'd posted it. It is possible that the Vim MSDS contains only the chemicals regulated as hazardous, which is what the law requires. Most companies (whose MSDS's I've seen) put all ingredients in the list, although I have seen some with only the regulated ingredients.

So, no MSDS for me, and no ingredients list either.

But—I did eventually find a candidate for an ingredients list.

Unilever Canada doesn't post ingredients lists, but Unilever UK does—maybe the UK has better consumer protection laws and requires ingredients lists on cleaning products. Unilever UK has a product called "Cif PowerPro Naturals", and the product package is identical to Unilever Canada's "Vim PowerPro Naturals", right down to the flowers, sparkles, and funny shaped dot on the central 'i' in the product name.

It's probably a safe bet that this is the same product with a different brand name. If Unilever Canada cares to dispute this by providing me with an ingredients list for Vim, they're welcome to do so. (Since they didn't give one to Marketplace, I don't expect one.)

The Cif PowerPro Naturals ingredients are as follows: <5% Anionic Surfactants, Non-ionic Surfactants, Perfume, Limonene, Linalool, Benzisothiazolinone. I'm not sure if the "less than 5%" applies to the entire list combined (and thus the product is greater than 95% water, or if it applies only to the first item. Since the convention is to list ingredients in decreasing order of quantity, I suspect that all listed ingredients together make under 5% of the product.

Anionic Surfactants, Non-ionic Surfactants, Perfume
This is probably proprietary stuff. I've seen general terms like this on even an MSDS before, and if it's a proprietary formulation of the trade secret type, they'll let you get away with only listing the hazards information and not the actual chemical structure. The surfactants are things which, for example, make a mixture more or less foamy, or allow oil to be dissolved in water. Perfume could be either an extract or a synthetic.
This is an oil extracted from orange peels and used to make everything from food to industrial cleaners. It smells citrusy, is food safe, and is an excellent degreaser. It is an oil so there's a good chance that the surfactants above are at least partly used to dissolve limonene in water to make this spray. It's a byproduct of orange juice production.
This is an alcohol that can be isolated from many different plants and is frequently used in perfumes and scented products because it smells nice. ("Light" and "fresh" being common adjectives used to describe it.)
This is a widely used preservative used to prevent bacteria and fungus from growing in the bottle. Some people have a skin irritation reaction when they touch it.

Marketplace sent the sample off for carbon testing to find out how much was fossil vs. bio carbon, and the results showed 76% bio-based carbon, 24% fossil carbon. This is carbon only, and doesn't account for any of the other stuff in the ingredients or any ingredients that have no carbon.

It's way easier to get limonene and related compounds from oranges than it is to synthesize the stuff, especially since there's a huge infrastructure in place already to grow and process oranges. Likewise, Linalool seems to be primarily a plant extract. That leaves the benzisothiazolinone and the surfactants and perfume as candidates for the 24% fossil carbon.

If this ingredients list follows the convention of listing things in order of quantity, then even some of the surfactants and perfumes are probably naturally derived. As there are minimum two surfactants listed (anionic and non-ionic) and minimum one perfume, it's hard to say which of those is the source of the fossil carbon.

Here's where I get confused though: both Canadian and UK websites claim that this product has "citric acid" and "fermented citric acid". While citric acid is mainly produced by fermentation from sugarcane or other sources of sugar, citric acid is not in the ingredients list provided by Unilever UK. I don't know where that particular claim comes from—my best guess is that either the ingredients list provided by Unilever UK is incomplete, or some marketing person got confused about chemicals and thought limonene and citric acid were the same thing, being both chemicals that are present in citrus fruits. Not sure which I prefer.

Back to the question of greenwashing. Marketplace points out that the word "natural" is unregulated, and when they asked Unilever about their 98% natural claim, Unilever responded that this percentage included the water. Their UK website for Cif makes the same claim, saying "Did you know: 98% of total content naturally derived comprising water and plant based cleaning agents" on the product page. So, that claim is consistent across the company.

However, claiming water as part of the "natural" content? Um, no.

Water is indubitably natural, but if water can be claimed as part of the percentage natural ingredients, then all kinds of things can be claimed as better than 95% natural even when water is the only non-synthesized ingredient present. Let's see, here's a really easy and obvious one. Pharmacy-grade hydrogen peroxide, usually sold near 2-3% peroxide - that's 97-98% water, or 97-98% natural. Hydrogen peroxide is far too reactive to last long in nature, especially at those concentrations, and even in the bottle with no contaminants it decomposes over time. I haven't seen anybody making claims about it being a "97% natural" product, and if including water were allowed, they could. Likewise, I've worked with some pretty nasty stuff that had to be handled carefully even at far less than 1% non-water, or greater than 99% water. Water only counts insofar as it adjusts the concentration of the compound of interest and is capable of diluting a toxic substance to the point where it's non-toxic. Where that is depends on the compound of interest, however, and not so much on the water. Water is actually implied, and stating only the other components is the norm. "This mixture is 95% water" is meaningless when it comes to figuring out what the mixture will do, unless you know the other 5%. Ethanol? Drink it at a party, that's in the range of many beers. Acetic acid? cook with it, that's vinegar. Sodium hydroxide? Watch out, it'll burn your skin. A mixture of limonene and surfactants? Scrub your bathroom with it, that's vim.

So, no. Unilever, you do not get to include water when you're claiming how "natural" a product is. This is where "natural" being an unregulated claim comes in: nobody can enforce it.

Now, 76% plant-based carbon isn't all that bad, and the total weight percent of plant-derived ingredients may (or may not) be higher than that when you account for all the other atoms attached to those carbons. Without knowing the molecular structure of the surfactants, I couldn't say, but they're commonly a long chain of just carbon and hydrogen with a small something on one end. The less "other stuff" is in the molecule, the better the carbon-only mass can represent it.

I'd have to say that while Vim PowerPro Naturals is probably a perfectly good cleaner and there's nothing inherently wrong with it, claiming it's 98% natural is just greenwashing. A more accurate claim would have been to focus on the orange-sourced cleaner limonene, because that's the active ingredient and that is natural. However, lots of cleaners use limonene, so maybe they figured it wouldn't stand out enough or something. Also, refusing to provide ingredient lists? Not cool. Don't make claims unless you can publicly back them up with science.

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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