How Do Cleaning Products Connect to Climate Change?

Young woman in the grocery aisle examining cleaning products

This post was originally published on Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE)’s website. We appreciate their willingness to share helpful, earth-friendly information this Earth Month and always, and Naturepedic supports their educational and advocacy efforts.

No matter where you live, you’ve probably felt the impacts of climate change whether that’s increased droughts, flooding, wildfires, snowmelt, etc. (for me in Montana I have definitely felt the impacts of increased wildfires). Climate change is the most significant threat our planet faces and communities of color are especially vulnerable to the impacts.

One of the many contributing factors to climate change is consumption, as the result of the extraction of resources like petroleum and gas used to make products. Take, for example, cleaning products (store aisles are filled with dozens of different cleaners for windows, floors, stoves, toilets, bathtubs, disinfectants — you name it — there is a cleaner for it!)

Cleaning products are made with chemicals and are part of the larger chemical industry. The chemical industry is extremely energy-intensive and is the second (!) largest user of fuel in the manufacturing sector.

Here’s how it works—most of the chemical industry uses petroleum and natural gas to make chemicals. In addition, it takes a ton of energy (heat, pressure, electricity) to create the complex chemical reactions that help turn petroleum and natural gas into different types of chemicals.

And did you know that consumer products (including cleaning products) emit just as much VOC pollution (volatile organic compounds) in to our air as tailpipe emissions from vehicles?

How Cleaning Product Companies Address Climate Change

Row of plastic bottles on a store shelfRow of plastic bottles on a store shelf

While the cleaning product sector is just one piece of the chemical industry, it still plays role in climate change. Cleaning product companies often talk about their impacts on climate change (and ways they are reducing impacts) in a number of different ways:

  1. Energy use in the production and distribution of cleaning products (like transporting cleaning products to stores from distribution centers).
  2. Use of chemicals and plastics (packaging) and the energy it takes to make those chemicals/packaging.
  3. Energy used by their customers when they use cleaning products (e.g. energy for hot water to wash clothes or dishes)

Companies estimate the third category – customer use – is by far the largest percentage of their overall emissions. For example, Seventh Generation says it is 90% of their emissions, and Reckitt (makers of Lysol) says it makes up 75%.

While this may be true, it unreasonably shifts blame away from corporations and instead places the responsibility on customers, when there are things the companies should be doing more of to reduce their climate impact. Things like making less products (not a popular idea in our capitalistic society), finding more renewable sources to make chemicals, and eliminating the use of plastics, or at least significantly reducing it. Even recycling programs promoted by corporations often put the responsibility on individuals to recycle their plastics, instead of putting energy and resources into packaging options that will reduce new plastic waste from entering our environment in the first place.

What Consumers Can Do Today to Reduce the Impact

Vinegar, baking soda and a sponge to be used as a DIY cleaning optionVinegar, baking soda and a sponge to be used as a DIY cleaning option

But, while we work on changing policies and practices in the cleaning industry, there are additional simple actions we can start doing today when it comes to cleaning products and climate change:

  • Buy less—a multi-purpose cleaner can serve many different functions (bathroom cleaner, kitchen cleaner, toilet cleaner, even floor cleaner!)
  • Opt for fragrance-free options when available. Fragranced products usually contain more ingredients and are often some of the most toxic ingredients found in cleaners.
  • My favorite—make your own cleaning products using kitchen staples like baking soda and vinegar. You cut out the chemical industry all together! You can even store it in glass jars.
  • If you have the option, don’t use the heat setting on your dishwasher or washing machine.

While these tips are helpful, it’s really incumbent on the cleaning product industry to implement real solutions and move away from petro-based chemicals, plastic, and marketing dozens of products that perform the same function.

Amanda Wall, Marketing Director, Mattress Recycling CouncilAmanda Wall, Marketing Director, Mattress Recycling Council

Jamie McConnell (she/her), Deputy Director of Women’s Voices for the Earth, has worked in the environmental health field for over 15 years and oversees the organization’s programmatic work. In addition, she devises policy strategies on the state and federal level that will increase disclosure of ingredients and reduce the use of harmful chemicals in consumer and salon products. She is a co-convener of the National Healthy Nail and Beauty Salon Alliance and a former steering committee member of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and Montana Women Vote. Jamie has a master’s degree in environmental studies from the University of Montana and a B.A. from UCLA.