New Yorkers from 21 different environmental groups recently demanded enforcement of the state’s 40-year-old — and nation’s only — ingredient disclosure law for cleaning products.

The state conceded and will soon publish regulations requiring and enforcing ingredient disclosure.

To date, at least 13 states, including Florida, Illinois and Oregon, are considering similar policies to identify chemicals of concern and put ingredients on cleaning product labels.

Ingredient disclosure is garnering attention but not necessarily in the fashion proponents of a federal ingredient disclosure law may have liked.

“We can anticipate that other states will emulate New York’s law in some fashion but in ways that are different and require different types of disclosures,” says Bill Balek, director of environmental services at ISSA, Lincolnwood, Ill. “It’s this patchwork approach of mandatory [and] voluntary ingredient disclosure that is going to make it difficult for manufacturers to come up with a reasonable solution for compliance.”

Steve Ashkin, president of Bloomington, Ind.-based The Ashkin Group and member of the Sierra Club Toxics Committee, says proponents support federal legislation, such as the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act of 2011, H.R. 3457 introduced in November 2011, which would have federally mandated that manufacturers list all ingredients on cleaning product labels and supply the information online.

“We need the government to standardize [ingredient disclosure] and make it federal legislation because it levels the playing field and makes the rules of the road clear for everybody,” says Ashkin.

Federal legislation hit a roadblock when discussions between the Consumer Specialty Products Association (CSPA), the Sierra Club and the federal legislature came to a standstill after several large manufacturers pulled their support.

“Without that consensus the CSPA had to pull out of the discussions,” Ashkin says.

Now individual state action may become the norm. According to Ashkin, piecemeal legislation will generate confusion in the marketplace.

“Some of the extreme environmental groups, not the Sierra Club, will take this [ingredient disclosure legislation] to the states. These groups will target friendly governors and legislatures where they have well-organized grassroots political organizations and push this through on a state level,” he says. “Then manufacturers will be faced with labeling their products differently for each state.”

Consumers’ right to know

Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), an organization that works to eliminate toxic chemicals that impact women’s health, highlighted the lack of ingredient disclosure when it released “Dirty Secrets: What’s hiding in your cleaning products?” in November 2011. The study tested 20 cleaning products from five product manufacturers for hidden chemicals. The results found reproductive toxins, carcinogens, hormone disruptors and allergens in these products. WVE argues these toxins should be listed on product labels.

And Ashkin agrees: “The bottom line is, consumers have a right to know what’s in the products they buy.”

This knowledge can be important to an individual’s health, especially those sensitive or allergic to fragrances or specific ingredients, says Ashkin.

This concern extends beyond the health of building occupants. Labor unions for janitors, nurses and other groups working with these chemicals all day, every day, are particularly concerned.

“The real exposure is to groups who work with these compounds eight hours a day, five days a week, as compared to consumers who may use them 15 minutes a day,” Ashkin says. “Labor unions are very interested because this will give them a better sense of what companies can do to protect their workers. ”

But opponents to federal mandates argue federal legislation is unnecessary because manufacturers already voluntarily disclose this information on websites, in social media and on cleaning association sites such as Ingredient Central on the American Cleaning Institute (ACI) website, which lists air care, automotive care products, cleaning products, polishes and floor finishes. The CSPA also offers a voluntary consumer product ingredient communications initiative in four similar product categories: air care, automotive care, cleaning, floor care and polishes. These voluntary programs aim to help consumers make informed purchasing decisions.

“We believe these comprehensive, voluntary programs are meeting the needs,” says Douglas Troutman, vice president and counsel for ACI, a Washington D.C.-based association that represents manufacturers of cleaning products, formulators and chemical distributors. He says 99 percent of all cleaning product manufacturers participate in the ACI program and publicly post ingredients on their websites.

“We are able to communicate with the end-product user, whether a consumer or a building service contractor, and show them through training, MSDS sheets and other means what’s in the product,” Troutman says. “The online information is very comprehensive.”

These voluntary programs may serve as models for what will be required of manufacturers in ingredient disclosure legislation, says Balek.

Troutman questions whether a legislative mandate will be dynamic enough to encompass the many ways manufacturers communicate with consumers.

“We would be concerned that a top-down mandate wouldn’t be able to keep up with all the activities we are engaged in,” he says. “Manufacturers communicate about products via 800 numbers, product labels, websites, smartphones, end-cap placements in grocery stores and more. Their communications programs are very robust.”

The case for standardization

David Thompson, president of the Green Clean Institute, Rolla, Mo., agrees, saying most manufacturers communicate ingredients in some fashion but purports a federal mandate is necessary to standardize these communications.

“Right now confusion reigns when using cleaning products; every manufacturer words their ingredients differently,” Thompson says.

Except for labeling mandates on Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)-registered products, manufacturers currently are not required to list any ingredients on their cleaning product labels. As a result, many manufacturers opt not to provide this information. If they do list it, it’s often in very vague terms.

“The label might say the product is a corn-based surfactant, but what does that really mean?” Ashkin asks.

Ingredient names also vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.

“The same ingredient might be listed differently on every manufacturers’ label,” says Ashkin. “The barriers to a voluntary program are that not everyone is going to do it and not everyone is going to do it the same way.”

A federal mandate standardizing labels, making them readable, usable and easily understood, would eliminate these problems, says Thompson.

CSPA and the Sierra Club support using standardized sets of chemical names to identify ingredients. This nomenclature could be drawn from the International Nomenclature of Cosmetics Ingredients, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, the Chemical Abstract Service or even CSPA’s Consumer Product Ingredients Dictionary. They also promote the protection of legitimate proprietary ingredient information, such as specific fragrance ingredients.

“Ultimately for ingredient disclosure to be sustainable, to be workable, it needs to strike a rather delicate balance. That’s where the trappings lie. The balance I’m referring to is the one that would provide purchasers with actionable information and yet at the same time protect the legitimate interest of businesses, proprietary information such as formulations, etc.,” says Balek. “Companies have invested substantial amounts of money in developing these proprietary formulations and they are very concerned that divulging that information in certain ways could be detrimental to their competitive position in the marketplace.”

A pricey proposition?

Some manufacturers resist ingredient disclosure laws because they believe they’ll be cost prohibitive for manufacturers, janitorial operations and governing bodies.

“We’ve already seen cash-strapped agencies having to deal with a number of other mandates from Congress,” Troutman says. “We have to remember that a lot of agencies are cash-strapped right now. We have communicated with policy makers that we already have a very strong program and have asked them to promote it and embrace it because it’s already meeting the needs they have laid out.”

True costs to manufacturers are unknown at this point, according to Balek.

“It really depends on the nature of disclosure. Is it going to be web-based, label-based, MSDS-based — all of those have different costs and implications,” he says.

But proponents believe program costs will be minimal.

“We are not telling manufacturers to reformulate products. We are not telling people not to clean,” says Ashkin. “We are not going to ban any ingredients. We are not trying to ban fragrances. We are not trying to ban preservatives. We are simply trying to let the consumer know that these ingredients are in the product so they can make informed purchasing decisions.”

Ashkin agrees manufacturers will incur some expense when relabeling products but expects it to be minimal.

“I’ve been in this business for 30 years, I know for an absolute fact that manufacturers redesign their labels and buy new printing plates on a regular basis,” he says.

Manufacturers could change out labels as part of this process without additional expense.

Opponents to the legislation argue educating the industry on what these labels mean will cost money, too.

Though a supporter to legislation, Thomson emphasizes there has to be an educational component.

“Legislation is one thing. You can get the labeling on the products but unless everyone understands what these labels mean, it won’t change anything,” he says.

Costs incurred in enforcing a mandate have also been cause for concern. Opponents worry enforcement may cost manufacturers and governing bodies’ money they don’t have. But Ashkin predicts self-policing will occur.

“The market will force companies to do it,” he says. “If some company doesn’t do it and their competitor does, their competitor will take them before the Federal Trade Commission or the advertising division of the Better Business Bureau.”

However, worries about rising costs, education and enforcement may be unfounded. Ashkin uses the Design for the Environment (DfE) program through the Environmental Protection Agency as an example. In April 2011, the 20-year-old effort began requiring full ingredient disclosure in its certification program. More than 2,700 products disclose their ingredients as part of its DfE certification.

“This program reinforces that ingredient disclosure can be done without putting companies out of business,” Ashkin says.

The case for and against ingredient disclosure will continue to be debated. It remains uncertain when, or if, federal legislation mandating the practice will be passed. But a standard approach to identifying cleaning product ingredients, especially those that pose potential health or environmental risks, could create safer working conditions for janitors and building occupants.

Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis. She is a frequent contributor to
Contracting Profits.