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Originally published Saturday, September 25, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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Seek the fine print on household products touting 'green' credentials

It's to replace that grease-attacking dishwashing solution.

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GREEN MARKET

IT'S TIME to replace that grease-attacking dishwashing solution.

A young mom, distracted by her preschooler, breezes into the alarmingly fragrant aisle at a Seattle-area superstore. She quickly scans the rack, muttering out loud about wanting to buy something nontoxic.

"Is this what we got before, honey?" she asks her daughter, who had already disappeared around the end of the aisle. It took just another second's worth of glancing at the army of products before she grabbed one with the word "green" in its name, saying, "Green, natural, that'll do it."

In the cart. Done.

Wouldn't it be great if it were that simple? As busy consumers, we don't have much time to compare products or read the fine print. We want to trust that someone has verified that what we're staking our green conscience on is, well, actually green.

If you try to buy cleaning items with an eye to the environment, then hear this message: You still have to do a lot of work on your own to make sure the products are what you want them to be. There is no authority verifying every claim made on products, and many manufacturers eke by without an outside organization checking their green stance. Labels are appearing that try to certify products based on set standards, but they aren't yet widespread or complete. Mislabeling with vague terms like "natural" and "environmentally friendly" is rampant — often with no further disclosure of ingredients.

So what's a conscientious consumer to do?

The first thing is to ask questions of the product and be aware of marketing tactics. Take, for example, the word "natural." It appears frequently on products claiming to be green. If you see that word, look for a list of ingredients to back it up. It might not be there on cleaning products, because there's no law requiring full ingredient disclosure, says Urvashi Rangan with GreenerChoices.org, Consumer Reports' green portal.

The more specific a claim, the more likely it is to be true, says Rangan. Manufacturers are subject to Federal Trade Commission deceptive-business-practices regulation, but if marketing terms are general enough, they haven't been clearly defined and companies can get away with using them.

"Vague claims are much harder to disprove because they're so vague," she says. "Green, organic, natural — you need to do more to figure out if that's really true."

Another thing to look for are labels claiming the product meets a set of standards, usually developed by an outside party. One you've probably seen for appliances and electronics is the ENERGY STAR label, now widely trusted and visible in the market.

For cleaning products, labels ensuring green standards are fewer and less well known. Experts disagree as to whether these eco-labels are rigorous enough or even legitimate, making it harder for consumers to know what to do. You may have seen the Sierra Club stamp, the Environmental Protection Agency's Design for the Environment (DfE) label or the Good Housekeeping Green logo on cleaning products.

If you see a label on a product, check it out. What standards does it require, if any? Most organizations that have developed eco-labels have information on their websites. Read about what is required of products to meet the standards and how they are evaluated.

GreenerChoices.org maintains a growing database of claims and labels that it evaluates for truthfulness using set criteria. The two most important questions are whether the standards are meaningful and have been verified, Rangan says.

One common example is the label "biodegradable." If the word is used on its own, GreenerChoices.org says there's no reason to believe it's true. But if a product sports the label "Certified Biodegradable" from Scientific Certification Systems — a third-party, respected evaluator of this claim — the database contends that's a trusted eco-label.

Being aware of mislabeling and buzzwords is Step 1. While the field is still murky, do your homework on what's best to use and consider other ways to do the job.

Clive Davies, who heads the EPA's DfE program, recommends looking for products that carry the DfE label, plus words such as "biodegradable" and "natural." They are more likely to be legitimate, he says, with the label's backing. These products have met EPA's rigorous standards, which involve using the best available science to look at ingredients in a product, and the potential impact on human health and the environment.

Rangan with GreenerChoices.org says consumers should look for cleaning products that list ingredients. At the most basic level, steer clear of products that contain carcinogens and other toxic ingredients.

Toilet-bowl, drain and oven cleaners tend to carry the most toxic substances, Rangan says. Try instead to use other tools such as a stiff brush or your oven's cleaning setting.

Even if you opt for conventional products, just use less. Solutions can be diluted or used more infrequently. Instead of disinfecting every time you clean the bathroom, try using scrubbing tools to do the same job.

If you want to try vinegar or baking soda instead of cleaning products, find out each substance's cleaning strength. GreenerChoices.org offers a list of homemade cleaners and what each one does best.

Michelle Ma is a Seattle Times online news producer.

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