Why eco-friendly products are not as green as they appear

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Faced with a choice between normal cleaning products and more expensive "green" alternatives, many shoppers pay more to do their bit for the environment.

But store chains and specialist manufacturers may be exaggerating some of their claims for "eco" cleaners and washing powders, a process dubbed "greenwashing". according to a survey by a consumer group today.

The claims of 14 "green" household cleaners, laundry tablets, nappies and baby wipes were put to the test by a panel of experts assembled by Which?.

While all the products made by the likes of Ecover, Green Force and Tesco did some good for the planet, almost half of them made claims that seemed not to be justified.

Which? assembled a panel of experts including Dr John Hoskins, a toxicologist and former adviser to the Commons Environment Select Committee, and Dr John Emsley, a chemist who has written extensively about the impact of chemicals in everyday life.

While they gave a thumbs-up to disposable nappies and wipes made by Sainsbury's, Asda, Earth Friendly and others, they disputed some of the claims made for laundry tablets and, especially, lavatory cleaners.

The world's biggest ecological cleaning product company, the Belgian Ecover, came in for some of the heaviest criticism. Of its lavatory cleaner and laundry tablets, Which? said: "Some claims are greenwash". Its panel "found no convincing evidence" to show that the cleaner had a different impact on aquatic life once it had been through a waste treatment plant. The scientists levelled the same charge at its laundry tablets, and those made by another company, Simply Active Eco Smart.

On Green Force's lavatory cleaner, the scientists had reservations about the claim "formulated to limit the impact on the environment" and said there was no convincing evidence that it was kinder to fish and other aquatic life than the market leader. While Sainsbury's Cleanhome cleaner claimed it was biodegradeable and kinder to the environment, the experts said some claims lacked evidence, again saying there was no convincing evidence it was kinder to aquatic life.

Some of Tesco's claims for its Naturally lavatory cleaner "lacked evidence" – particularly the claim that it contained no phosphates and left no chemical residues, since, the panel pointed out, this did not apply to normal cleaners either. Although they did not criticise the products, Which? said it was unclear whether the clean planet logos on Ariel Actilift and Persil Bio tablets related to environmental action by the manufacturer or shopper. Which? questioned the "greenness" of several other, bigger products. Tests showed the eco steam setting of the Bosch Sensixx Eco iron used the same energy as a low setting on a normal Bosch iron, and the Ainsley Harriott Eco Express Kettle was no quicker or more efficient than a normal kettle. There were many more fuel efficient cars on the market than the Ford Focus 1.6 Econetic, which did 49 miles to the gallon in tests.

Eco labels disputed the findings of the survey. Ecover said its lavatory cleaner and laundry tablets surpassed environmental laws, saying: "Our products are fully degradeable in anaerobic and aerobic conditions, going further than legislation and differentiating Ecover from market leaders."

Green Force said its sugar-based detergent was less toxic than soap and 20 times better than a typical alternative. Sainsbury's said its cleaner was endorsed by the Government-backed Ecolabel scheme. Simply said its Eco Label status showed it met toxicity criteria "which most, if not all, the leading brands cannot meet".

Tesco agreed to remove the claim about phosphates but stuck by its line on hazardous residues, saying that in the case of accidents citric acid and naturally derived detergents were "much kinder to the skin" than acids found in other products.

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