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Frequently Asked Questions

Why does EPA label products?

EPA's mission is to protect the health of people and the environment. To further that mission, EPA labels products so that consumers can easily choose ones that are safer for people and the environment.  The program empowers consumers to protect their health and minimize impact on the environment through everyday purchasing decisions.  Using EPA’s chemical and toxicological expertise, the Design for the Environment program applies stringent criteria for health and environmental safety in labeling products with the safest possible chemical ingredients.

What does the Design for Environment label mean?

When consumers see the Design for the Environment (DfE) label on a product, they can be confident that the ingredients have been through a rigorous EPA review.  The label means that EPA scientists have evaluated every ingredient in the product to ensure it meets DfE's stringent criteria. When people use Design for the Environment-labeled products they are protecting their families and the environment by making safer chemical choices.

Do Design for the Environment-labeled products work well?

Yes, in addition to meeting stringent safety criteria, every product with the Design for the Environment label has met high standards for performance.

Where can I find Design for the Environment-labeled products?

For a complete list of Design for the Environment-labeled products visit our product webpage . As of December 2011, more than 2,500 products carry the label and new products are always being added. The list of labeled products can also be found on DfE's mobile website. You can find Design for the Environment-labeled products at most stores that carry cleaning and household supplies, including major nationwide retailers and thousands of smaller and independent stores. Look for the DfE label on products!

How do companies earn the Design for the Environment label for their products?

Companies must apply for the label by submitting their products to Design for the Environment (DfE) for review.  We carefully evaluate every ingredient against a stringent set of health and environmental criteria. These criteria address potential health and environmental concerns, including, for example, if an ingredient is associated with causing cancer or reproductive harm, and if it accumulates in human tissue or in the environment. A product is only allowed to carry the DfE label if each ingredient is among the safest in its ingredient class. Additionally, the product as a whole has to meet safety criteria and qualify as high-performing and be packaged in an environmentally friendly manner.  Some consumers want to know which chemicals are in the products they use so, as a condition of labeling, all ingredients must be disclosed either on the product or the manufacturer’s website.

The Design for the Environment safer product labeling process is explained on our website, where you can find our Standard for Safer Products and Safer Ingredient Criteria. We work closely with companies that want to make safer products, and the DfE label offers the incentive for many manufacturers to invest in improving their formulations. Companies seeking information on how to apply for the DfE label should contact us at dfe@epa.gov.

There are many ‘eco-labels’ in the marketplace -- how is Design for the Environment's labeling program different?

Design for the Environment's labeling program is different from other eco-labels in several important ways:

First, we are focused on chemistry and identifying safer chemicals. Our approach to product review is grounded in the EPA’s more than 40 years of experience in evaluating the human health and environmental characteristics of chemicals. This expertise enables us to go beyond established lists of ‘bad actor’ chemicals and to use expert judgment to determine the likely health and environmental hazards of chemicals that haven’t been widely studied.

Second, we look at a full set of health and environmental endpoints based on a range of data, experimental and modeled, and expert judgment.

Finally, we work closely with companies to help them understand the chemistry of their products and to select safer alternatives to chemicals that pose potential health or environmental concerns.

Are products labeled “natural” safer than other products?

It is impossible to say without knowing the product ingredients and understanding their potential effects. Cleaning products marketed as “natural” typically use chemicals made from corn or other biological sources, rather than petroleum. While these cleaning products may be made out of renewable resources, their “natural” ingredients are still chemically identical to those made from petroleum, so their potential health and environmental impacts during and after use would be the same.

Are homemade cleaning products “green,” and are they effective?

Household chemicals used for cleaning purposes include lemon juice, vinegar, baking soda, borax, ammonia, and bleach.  Some of those chemicals can be useful and generally are benign; others are potentially hazardous.  Borax, for example, which is used to enhance the cleaning power of a detergent, is associated with reproductive, developmental, and neurological hazards. These chemicals can also be toxic if used in the wrong ways.  For example, combining bleach and ammonia generates a toxic chloramine gas.  Typically, homemade cleaners do not perform as well as commercially available products, which are specially formulated chemical blends designed for high performance.

How does using Design for the Environment products help the environment?

Empowering consumers to quickly identify and choose safer products benefits the environment and human health. Products that carry the Design for the Environment (DfE) label are safer for fish and other aquatic life, do not pollute air or waterways, and do not add harmful chemicals to the land.

Two types of chemical ingredients that can affect the environment are surfactants and "builders." Surfactants, chemicals that help remove dirt, are key ingredients in all detergents, but they can be toxic to aquatic life. Surfactants that break down quickly are safer, since they are effectively neutralized in sewers and wastewater plants.  Through our Safer Detergents Stewardship Initiative, we help companies voluntarily move to safer surfactants.

“Builders” change the qualities of water so detergents can work better.  One builder, inorganic phosphate, is an essential nutrient for plants, but in high concentrations can be harmful to the environment, leading to problems like algae blooms and loss of oxygen in waterways.  Many states and localities have banned or restricted inorganic phosphates in laundry detergents.  DfE-labeled products are free of inorganic phosphate builders.

Also, all products that carry the DfE label must meet other environment-conscious criteria, such as sustainable packaging requirements and restrictions on levels of VOCs (volatile organic compounds).

Are cleaning product manufacturers required by law to list all their ingredients?

No. Unlike food products, manufacturers of chemical products are not required to list ingredients on their containers or make them public. At Design for the Environment, we believe transparency is the key to helping consumers make informed choices. As of April 2011, we have required that all ingredients, including fragrances, be listed for all products that carry the Design for the Environment label. Ingredients must be listed either on the product or on an easy-access website.  As manufacturers come into compliance with the listing requirement, consumers will be able to understand more about the Design for the Environment-labeled products they use and their health and environmental safety benefits.

When will manufacturers of currently labeled products become subject to the new provisions in the DfE Standard on ingredient communication and packaging?

Ingredient communication and packaging provisions were finalized and added to the Design for the Environment Standard for Safer Products in April 2011.  They became effective as of that date and applicable to all applicants for the label. For manufacturers of currently labeled products, the provisions are being phased-in over the next year and all partnership agreements will be modified to include the new provisions.  Companies will be subject to an audit to ensure compliance with the new provisions in the year following the partnership amendment.

How is the Design for the Environment label good for businesses and the economy?

In implementing its safer product labeling program, Design for the Environment not only evaluates products and their ingredients to ensure compliance with its Standard for Safer Products, but also offers advice on safer alternatives for ingredients that do not meet its safety criteria.  This consultation service, unique among eco-labels, helps formulating companies learn about safer chemistry and earn the Design for the Environment label, thereby distinguishing their products in the marketplace.  It also encourages research institutions to invest in exploring and developing safer chemical alternatives.

Consumers are focusing more and more on sustainability and are looking for advice on how to buy safer products for their families.  The Design for the Environment label, backed by the scientific expertise and experience of EPA, provides the assurance many consumers seek.

Companies that have invested in safer chemistry and earned the label have entered an expanding marketplace for sustainable products.  These companies can look forward to growing their businesses and adding green jobs to the economy.  Participants in the green marketplace include major retailers, such as Wal-Mart, Safeway, Home Depot, and Target, which have given special status to Design for the Environment-labeled products, and government purchasers who are increasingly specifying the Design for the Environment label in their purchasing requirements.

How does EPA verify compliance with the Design for the Environment Standard and qualify a product to carry the label?

Step 1:  Full ingredient disclosure -- To earn permission to place the Design for the Environment label on products, a manufacturer must disclose all product ingredients, without exception.  This disclosure requirement includes ingredients supplied by third parties that are proprietary and not disclosed to the manufacturer; the third parties send the information directly to Design for the Environment.  The partnership agreement contains a non-confidential statement of formula that references the confidential formula kept in our files.  Only products that pass review can bear the DfE logo.  If the manufacturer wishes to change the formula and retain the label, the new ingredient(s) must first go through Design for the Environment review; if in compliance with the criteria, we modify the partnership agreement and update our records.

Step 2:  Partner Audits -- Design for the Environment conducts regular partner audits to ensure that the ingredients in labeled products are identical to those disclosed during partnership development (and modification, if any) and are in compliance with the latest version of the Standard for Safer Products and Safer Ingredient Criteria.  During the three-year partnership period, Design for the Environment will conduct an on-site audit, a desk audit, and a renewal audit on or about the anniversary date of the partnership.  The audits will also oversee and seek to ensure good manufacturing practices and proper use of and communications about the Design for the Environment label.

How do I stay informed about what Design for the Environment is doing

For news and tips, go to our Facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/epadfe and don’t forget to “like” us!

For more information email: dfe@epa.gov

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