Transparency for a Greener Planet

Kimberly Delaney by Kimberly Delaney | May 28th, 2009 | No Comments
topic: Green Living

Transparency is a big buzzword these days, but when it comes to product labels it can be a good barometer to know that a product is truly green. That doesn’t mean that the product comes wrapped in cellophane or see-through vinyl packaging. Transparency in this context means that the manufacturer proudly states the product’s complete ingredient list on the label, despite laws that protect them from having to share such secrets.

Stick with companies that are willing to be transparent

I’m not paid by or advertising for Seventh Generation, but one look at your supermarket shelves will tell you that they are setting the bar on labeling transparency. They may not be perfectly transparent yet, but they are certainly making long strides in the right direction. And, in case you miss the very complete ingredients list on the back label, they often have an extra “You have the right to know” sticker on the front to point it out. Seventh Generation’s ingredient lists typically include the purpose of the ingredient and sometimes the source in parenthesis within the list.

Degrees of Transparency

While it’s generally true that the more transparent the label, the greener the product, it’s also turning out to be a good marketing move. That said, we’ve already seen good results when green thinking and doing coincide with good business sense. So I wouldn’t discount something just because it’s good marketing. But, as with anything else, it’s a good idea to do a little digging before you believe everything you read.

In thinking about this topic, a children’s toothpaste from Tom’s of Maine caught my eye. On the side of the box, there is a chart that lists each of the ingredients, their purpose and source. This way you don’t have to know off the top of your head that Carrageenan is a thickener that comes from seaweed or wonder if glycerin is a petroleum product because it says right here that it’s from vegetable oils.

The label is good but when I saw that the product contained Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), I took the extra step of looking up this specific toothpaste product on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep website and found that it is ranked 4 out of 10 on the toxicity scale. This is pretty low for toothpaste in general — there are a few that rank lower and many that rank much higher on the scale.

SLS is a concern even though it sounds quite natural since it is “derived from coconut oil.” SLS is a severe skin and eye irritant that has been linked to abnormal eye development in children and has been found to be lethal to fish.

The Skin Deep website showed that SLS isn’t the worst ingredient (rated a 3 on the scale). In fact, the one ingredient I hadn’t even thought twice about was more cause for concern. That’s the “fruit extracts” that come from fruit “flavors.” Like “fragrance” in ingredient lists on cleaning products and other personal care products, “flavor” sounds like a singular ingredient but it masks what can be a long and toxic list of ingredients. This may or may not be true for this product, but the point is, labels that are presented as transparent can still keep secrets.

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