TOPICS > Science

Environmental Demand Drives Eco-friendly Products

August 15, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
Loading the player...
As public demand for eco-friendly products increases, businesses rush to fill the gap with "green" products touting a lower carbon footprint. Spencer Michels reports on this growing development.

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour correspondent: It’s hard to go shopping these days without being bombarded with products claiming to be environmentally friendly, natural, or simply green. The implication is: Buy these goods, and you can personally combat global warming.

At green conferences, manufacturers of everything from paint to fuel-efficient cars to toilet paper hawk their wares. One woman was promoting environmental paper products.

PRODUCT SELLER: It’s made out of kasha and nigovda (ph), so it grows back within 10 years.

SPENCER MICHELS: Even traditional companies are hoping aboard the green bandwagon.

TV COMMERCIAL NARRATOR: From nature comes Green Works, natural plant-based cleaners from Clorox.

SPENCER MICHELS: Clorox, the Fortune 500 company that makes bleach, is investing heavily in Green Works, a new line of natural, biodegradable cleaning products.

DON KNAUSS, CEO, Clorox: The all-purpose cleaner is obviously the clear leader right now.

SPENCER MICHELS: Don Knauss, Clorox’s CEO, and Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, formed an unlikely alliance when Pope’s environmental organization in effect endorsed Green Works.

Clorox’s Knauss says his company thought about green products for five years before deciding the time was ripe. They used focus groups to figure out what potential consumers wanted.

DON KNAUSS: I want to feel like I’m doing the right thing, but — and, oh, by the way, it better be convenient. Don’t try and change my behavior radically.

CARL POPE, executive director, Sierra Club: And we thought it was important to say that green is not a niche thing. Green should be for everybody. And we thought this was an opportunity to have a green product that everybody is going to — you know, people have to clean their houses.

Old brands make new products

SPENCER MICHELS: Green Works' cleaning products, made from coconuts, lemon, and corn ethanol, marked a big step for Clorox, it's first new brand in 20 years. Its traditional bleach made of sodium hypochlorite was regarded by some as anything but green, although the company defends it.

DON KNAUSS: Sodium hypochlorite bleach is actually a pretty sustainable product. It essentially is nothing more than salt and water when it breaks down after usage. And bleach is really a wonder product. You know, there have been statements that no product has saved more human lives than bleach.

SPENCER MICHELS: But bleach gave Clorox an un-green image. Jeffrey Hollender is president of Seventh Generation, a company that has been making nontoxic cleaning and hygiene products for 20 years. Hollender says he's pleased to see major companies like Clorox enter the green market, but he finds bleach, and therefore all Clorox products, suspect.

JEFFREY HOLLENDER, CEO, Seventh Generation: Do you want to support a company that continues to make products that we believe are creating health risks for lots of consumers, let alone the environment?

And, unfortunately, chlorine, or sodium hypochlorite, from our perspective, which is a huge part of Clorox's business, is the most or one of the most dangerous chemicals that anyone can have in their house.

SPENCER MICHELS: But the Sierra Club's Carl Pope, who once was a critic of chlorine chemicals, now says Clorox bleach is defensible.

CARL POPE: If the main product of the company which made Green Works had been a product we had real concerns with, we would not have entered into this relationship. We have a very high bar here. We haven't done this before. We didn't want to be associated with somebody who was doing good with one hand and bad with the other hand.

SPENCER MICHELS: With each sale of Green Works, the Sierra Club will get an undisclosed amount of money from Clorox, an arrangement criticized by some club members, among others.

CARL POPE: The customer buys it, they're helping the Sierra Club. That's the relationship. It's called cause-related marketing.

SPENCER MICHELS: Is that ethical?

CARL POPE: I think that's completely ethical.

PRODUCT SELLER: It will kill all the termites on contact.

'Green' hard to really define

SPENCER MICHELS: But the question still remains, what products truly are green?

We asked Andrew Hargadon to help us sort through the many products on display at a green conference in Sacramento. He teaches technology management and entrepreneurship at the University of California at Davis.

Are you helping to save the world, or is it just marketing?

ANDREW HARGADON, University of California, Davis: Well, you know, that's a great point. You don't really know. And you'd have to go in and audit each one to understand, what are the costs? What are the energy -- you know, what are the energy inputs? What are the environmental outputs? And then try and figure out by yourself, really, what's right.

SPENCER MICHELS: Even a trained expert can't usually tell what the environmental impact of a given product is.

ANDREW HARGADON: I can't tell the difference between a green pesticide and a solar panel on my roof, in terms of how much better good I'm doing for the environment.

SPENCER MICHELS: Hargadon says scientists and consultants have analyzed some green claims, but the guidelines for many products and processes are not clear.

ANDREW HARGADON: As the government's understanding, they're going to have to start making some strict guidelines as to what you can call green, what you can call sustainable. But that's going to be a long and very political battle before we come to some agreement.

SPENCER MICHELS: The giant Home Depot chain has attacked the problem of guidelines head-on. The company has launched Eco Options, a program that uses labels to identify products they've tested as green, efficient, and healthy, products like florescent light bulbs or a nontoxic paint.

JOE JAMES, Home Depot employee: So I'm going to take you over to the paint department, where we offer a no-smell paint.

SPENCER MICHELS: How do you know that the product is what the manufacturer says it is?

JOE JAMES: Because we did it -- we did the test ourselves. This doesn't give out any gases or anything like that. It really, really has no smell.

SPENCER MICHELS: To get an Eco Options certificate, manufacturers that want to sell green products to Home Depot pay an independent company called Scientific Certification Systems to test and certify that their goods are exactly as stated on the label.

Chet Chaffee, trained as a scientist, is vice president.

CHET CHAFFEE, Scientific Certification Systems: There's money to be made in marketing your product as environmental, but that doesn't necessarily mean that everybody is using legitimate language or legitimate information to do that. And that's why third-party certification has become so important and, in fact, is an ever-increasing business across the board.

Certification process for consumers

SPENCER MICHELS: The California-based company did verify the claim that this insulation was made of recycled materials, but not all products passed the test.

CHET CHAFFEE: What on there tells you that it's green fiber? See anything on there that tells you what the fiber is?

SPENCER MICHELS: Still, Chaffee says, the labeling that now exists doesn't tell the whole story. It doesn't tell what's missing. It doesn't warn of potential problems.

CHET CHAFFEE: We want to create a nutritional label for the environment. We want people to know whether the amount of different resources or the amount of pollution going in is making it worse or making it better.

SPENCER MICHELS: Seventh Generation's Jeffrey Hollender thinks a key step is to list ingredients on all products, not just on food.

JEFFREY HOLLENDER: I would recommend a -- if the product doesn't say, "We list all ingredients on the package," don't buy it, because you don't know what you're buying.

SPENCER MICHELS: He says that, despite a lot of phony green labeling today, so-called green-washing, real changes are coming.

JEFFREY HOLLENDER: In 5 to 10 years, green will be embedded into every product and service you buy. There's no question in my mind about that. Otherwise, we won't have a world to pass on to our children.

SPENCER MICHELS: But even that comment is debatable. Professor Hargadon, looking at all the green products on display, says that sustainability may well be only a fad.

ANDREW HARGADON: I fear that this is a 3-year fad rather than a 10-year fad, where less of the gains will stick.

We had an entire generation of scientists enter the field in the early '70s as a result of the first oil crisis and as a result of the problems with pesticide. And then we sort of forgot about green and clean and sustainable for another 30 years.

SPENCER MICHELS: Still, as climate change gets more attention, some green marketing is paying off. Seventh Generation sales have jumped 65 percent this year, and Green Works helped Clorox Corporation grow 9 percent.