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6 Green Terms: Which Ones Can You Trust?

Does “natural” mean organic? Should you buy anything labeled “non-toxic”? Here are the truth and eco-facts about many of the green terms you find on product labels.

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Box of cleaning product with the term natural

"Natural" appears on many labels, but it doesn't necessarily mean the product is green. Image: Liz Foreman for HouseLogic

What’s really green? Soon you’ll have a little more confidence about green product marketing claims, such as “biodegradable” and “recyclable”: The Federal Trade Commission, which sets standards for the use of environmental claims in its Green Guides, is getting tougher on green terms.

Proposed revisions to the Green Guides will make it harder for companies to make unsubstantiated green claims about their products.

So when is all this happening? An FTC official we spoke to says the revisions may be final this summer. Until then — and even after then, since the guides don’t have the force of regulation — put on your skeptic’s hat when you shop and be prepared to research labels before you buy.

1. “Organic”: a green term that really means something


Organic is the one term in our list that’s federally regulated — by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to be specific. Product makers making this claim must prove their stuff is “produced without antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, irradiation, or bioengineering.” Period.

FTC is cracking down on these terms


2. “Recyclable.” After the new guidelines are adopted, a manufacturer can use this term without a caveat only if a substantial majority of communities nationwide have facilities that can actually recycle its product. Before you buy, do your homework to see what you’re able to recycle locally. Also, take a closer look when a product claims to be “recycled” (a term that’s not covered in the Green Guides).

What you really want to look for is “post-consumer recycled” content. These products have been diverted from the landfill, so you’re truly helping reduce the waste stream when you buy them.

3. “Biodegradable.” When you see this term, you think, “Great, I don’t need to worry about throwing this away; it’ll break down naturally.” But many products labeled biodegradable need ideal composting conditions to break down — and some won’t degrade even then.

The FTC’s new guidelines require that products or packaging labeled “degradable” break down within a year in normal disposal conditions.

Heads-up: That means the term likely won’t apply to anything you’d throw in the trash, because items simply don’t degrade in landfills. It’s far better to reduce waste in the first place than to expect it to disappear.

4. “Compostable.” In the future, products with this claim shouldn’t take any longer to break down than the rest of your compost pile.

5. “Non-toxic.” The FTC’s new guidelines say that non-toxic claims should mean the product isn’t harmful to humans and safe for the environment. But research the product online if the label is vague. And definitely don’t assume kids or pets can ingest it safely.

The fuzziest green term of all

6. “Natural” is unregulated by the government. It’s not interchangeable with organic or healthy, although manufacturers want you to think if it’s natural, it has to be good for you, right? Not so much. Take ammonia. It’s a naturally occurring compound, but it’s also a toxic pollutant. Without context, the word natural doesn’t mean much.

A label to help you decide

When you’re just not sure about a product’s claims, look for certification by a reputable third party — like Scientific Certification Systems.

Its green-and-blue SCS label provides some reassurance that a product lives up to its claims. SCS sets tough standards for the terms biodegradable and recycled content, according to BuildingGreen, an independent company that educates building professionals on green certifications. And the label has been around a long time.

Some SCS guidelines:

  • SCS only certifies liquid products as biodegradable — cleaners, detergents, and soaps that break down completely in natural conditions in 28 days.
  • Recycled products include a wide array of building products — windows, doors, insulation, carpets, tiles, and more — so seek them out.
Karin-Beuerlein Karin Beuerlein

has covered home improvement and green living topics for HGTV.com, FineLiving.com, and FrontDoor.com. She has also written for dozens of national and regional publications in more than a decade of freelancing.

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