Marketing and Labeling: A Rose by any Other Name?

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Labeling can be sly. Marketers know that more and more people are interested in holistic products, so they may use certain wording in their advertising to make their products sound more natural to attract these consumers. Words, however, aren’t being regulated by some honest-label-oversight-committee, so it’s up to us to be savvy consumers. For example, “Natural,” and/or “Eco-friendly” on a label sound good, but that’s intentionally vague. On the other hand, “Solvent Free” or “No Petroleum Based Ingredients” labels offer more specifics. Try keeping a lookout for these differences if you want to make more informed purchasing decisions.

Speaking of misleading labels, how about “Biodegradable”? Well, almost everything will break down…eventually (with some notable exceptions, like plastic)! Something that says “Fully Biodegradable and Safe for Septic Tanks” tells you more. I actually contacted customer support for the popular Ecover brand and asked them what exactly they meant by “biodegradable.” I promptly received this courteous and clear answer:

“We follow the highest technical standard for defining biodegradability – the OECD standards – in which at least 70% of organic ingredients break down within 28 days. This means our products are suitable for greywater use on vegetation and for septic tanks, too.”

Since it’s hard to dig deeper into a products’ REAL ingredients and/or toxicity, we can learn a bit from the label.  Many labels say “danger,” “warning,” or “caution,” and may tell you what to watch for and how to take care of yourself, should something unfortunate happen. Here are a few more to look for:

  • “Danger,” or “Poisonous” describes the most hazardous materials.
  • “Corrosive” or “May Cause Burns,” is also dangerous.
  • “Warning” means the product is moderately hazardous.
  • “Caution” means it is slightly toxic.

Next to these words may be an explanation of the nature of the hazard. For example, “May Cause Skin Irritation,” “Flammable,” “Vapors Harmful” or “May Cause Burns on Contact.”  They usually don’t say “Neurotoxic,” “Interferes with Hormones,” “May Cause Headaches,” or more seriously, “May Possibly be Carcinogenic.” Think about that. Look around for products that clean very well and don’t need to say those things!