'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free. Try telling that to the captains of British industry. The triumph of capitalism is a triumph of complexity over simplicity, an endless search for new ways of making things and selling things regardless of the effectiveness of well-established solutions. You can't make a quick buck from a home truth.
Take domestic detergents. Until the middle of the last century, keeping hearth and home clean involved soap, water and the odd dash of bleach. Soap, produced for thousands of years from natural fats and oils, is relatively benign and breaks down in the environment quite fast. The same cannot be said for tetrapropylene benzene sulfonate (TPS), the first synthetic surfactant, manufactured in America in 1946.
A surfactant is a chemical that breaks the surface tension of water, leading to foaming and the penetration of dirt and stains. TPS did this job well and cost less than soap to make, so its commercial potential was quickly exploited. Unfortunately, however, it did not biodegrade effectively, and in the drought of 1959 Britain's rivers were overwhelmed with huge, floating barrages of foam.
Legislation soon followed, requiring surfactants to be biodegradable; ever since, both synthetic detergents and the legislation that controls them have become increasingly complex. The result is a society in which we consume a vast amount of synthetic chemicals in reassuringly shiny bottles but turn a blind eye to their ingredients and leave it the state to guarantee product safety, water quality and environmental health.
Unfortunately, our understanding of the impact of all these chemicals on the environment struggles to keep pace with the endless invention of the chemicals industry and there are thousands of long-established chemicals that we know very little about. The European Reach programme (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) is attempting to address this problem, but this is not without its costs: more than a million animals will die in laboratories just dealing with the backlog.
In general, our wastewater industry copes remarkably well with the crap (and detergents) we throw at it. For example, the addition of water-softening phosphates to detergents has long been criticised because phosphate-rich residues in sewage effluent encourage algal growth in rivers, starving the water of oxygen and leading to the collapse of the ecosystem (most famously in the Norfolk Broads). Yet our very own post-prandial contributions to the sewers contain quite enough phosphates to cause this problem without the help of detergents, so the only way of tackling it is to filter the phosphates at the sewage plant - and then reuse them.
Nonetheless, it makes sense to minimise environmental impacts at the design stage. If a product is designed to work with nature rather than against it, does not require a safety net downstream and is free from chemicals that are known to be toxic, such as phthalates and artificial musks, then I will buy it even if it costs me a bit more. Of course, if you really want to go back to basics, you need look no further than the old stalwarts of vinegar, lemon juice and baking soda. See Natural Stain Remover by Angela Martin for recipes to deal with everything from fish stains to pet poo.
I don't know what the Shakers cleaned their homes with but I suspect it was little more than water, soap and elbow grease. I guess elbow grease is the most environmentally friendly of all cleaning products, but it's not at the top of my shopping list.
If you are interested in eco-building, don't miss the annual conference of the Association of Environment Conscious Building, 7-8 July in Taunton (01285 841208; www.aecb.net).
The E-cloth (from £4.99) uses positively charged microfibres to trap dirt, so you don't need detergent at all (01892 752199; www.e-cloth.com).
WEBSITE OF THE WEEK
Greenpeace's Chemical Home is a detailed interactive guide to the many nasties you may encounter in your home ( www.greenpeace.org.uk/Products/Toxics).Reuse content