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The Greenwash Brigade

The dubious road to Clorox’s new GreenWorks product line

Heidi Siegelbaum Jan 21, 2008

Let’s start our journey in 2007 when Clorox and the American Red Cross crossed historically strict legal boundaries on using third-party endorsements on pesticides. Clorox bleach is a registered pesticide, and EPA prohibits third-party claims on pesticides … except this time where the familiar Red Cross label was used on Clorox bleach which is only supposed to have “use and safety” instructions. EPA is considering making their limited exception permanent (ye gads and hello litigation).

This story didn’t make mainstream press but state pesticide regulators found EPA’s exception to its own rules not only contrary to law but a dangerous precedent. The story is also routinely discussed in my happy circles of toxics and hazardous waste compatriots here in the Pacific NW.

Next enter Clorox once again who purchased the ubiquitously loved Burt’s Bees in November 2007 for $913 million: a small, environmentally-dedicated company swallowed by a mega-corporation in trade for purchasing intact land (Ms. Quimby, one of the original Burt’s Bees founders was able to purchase and restore 100,000 acres), helping the successor company green its practice and image, and just plain money. Clorox is a fairly traditional mainstream company which has more recently dedicated itself to improving its environmental performance. Joel Makower met with Clorox officials and wrote beautifully about Clorox’s evolution as a company. I hope that Clorox’s purchase of Burt’s Bees will inform product reformulation of their Formula 409, which contains 2-butoxyethanol, readily absorbed through the skin and which is routinely screened out by cities, states and companies with environmentally preferable purchasing screens on their cleaning products.

Finally, enter The Sierra Club, which will now have its logo on Clorox’s GreenWorks line of green cleaners. This is where I have a problem. In fact, the bad actors here in my estimation are EPA (for permitting Red Cross labels in violation of its own rules), The American Red Cross (which made a goodly amount of money in an exclusive licensing arrangement with Clorox) and The Sierra Club.

When you look at a product label, what would you think if you saw your favorite environmental non-profit logo? Wouldn’t you think, hey, this product is probably better, safer or greener than its competitors? Well, more than 17 state attorneys general thought so in a killer report on the pitfalls of cause-marketing (that’s when corporations or other private interests financially support non-profit work). The problem is that the non-profit and corporation typically have an exclusive licensing agreement which raises issues about product endorsement and the extent to which your purchase really helps the non-profit and its mission.

GreenWorks will also bear EPA’s Design for the Environment label which signals to me that the product really is superior from an environmental standpoint. I’d rather have EPA’s label on this product than The Sierra Club’s. If we decide to go this cliff-hanging route, then we may start to see non-profit logos on all sorts of products — and the last thing we need is more product labeling confusion.

Be prepared, state consumer protection agencies, because you are going to need some cash infusion soon as well… to help you sort out these implied claims. This is a prime example of what can happen when we let cash-strapped non-profits use corporate money to help fill the cookie jar. Remember how junk food made its way into the public school system?

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