Laundry washing products: Green Washing or Greenwashing?

I have been thinking I should change from my supermarket non bio which although comes in a cardboard box may not have the best ingredients. I discovered this brilliant analysis on laundry powders as weighs up ingredients from various brands out there.

When referring to Ethical Consumer magazine, we noticed that some of the ‘New Kids on the Block’ like Smol have not been rated by EC yet. This makes it difficult for us to offer any advice on their eco credentials, so they decided to do a bit of digging myself, beginning with Smol, and this is what we came up with…

So, Smol is marketed as a good value, convenient, high performance product which is also eco friendly. What makes it eco friendly we wondered?

A lot of the ‘eco’ products on the market have noticeably different ingredients from regular ones, and the parent company tends to be ethical too (Ecover/Method are the exception to this, being owned by SC Johnson).

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

Here is a comparison of the ingredients of eco brands (Ecoleaf powder, Greenscents liquid, Ecover powder) vs main detergents (Sainsburys powder, Fairy pods) and subscription service Smol.

๐Ÿ”นEcoleaf powder:Sodium bicarbonate, sodium carbonate, zeolite, sodium borate, sodium silicate, sodium percarbonate, sodium cocosulfate, soap, fatty alcohol ethoxylate, fragrance.Made in UK. 19p per wash

๐Ÿ”นGreenscents laundry liquid:aqua (Exmoor water), aloe barbadensis (aloe vera leaf juice)** , cocoamidopropyl betaine, coco-glucoside, lactic acid, xanthan gum, citrus sinensis (orange) oil*, saponaria officinalis (soapwort) leaf extract, rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) oil*, potassium sorbate, citric acid * organic, **organic juice from concentrate. Made in UK. 21p per wash

๐Ÿ”นEcover:15-30%: Zeolite, Oxygen-based bleaching agent, 5-15%: Anionic surfactants, Non-ionic surfactants. <5%: Soap, Perfume (contains Limonene, may cause an allergic reaction, Linalool) Enzymes.Made in EU. 30p per wash

๐Ÿ”นSmol:Bio: >30% Anionic Surfactants, 15-30% Non-Ionic Surfactants, 5-15% Soap, <5% Phosphonates, also contains Enzymes, Optical Brighteners, Perfume, Preservative: Phenoxyethanol. Non-bio: >30% Anionic Surfactants, 15-30% Non-Ionic Surfactants, 5-15% Soap, <5% Phosphonates, also contains Optical Brightener, Perfumes.Made in EU. 19p per wash.

๐Ÿ”นSainsburys5-15% Anionic Surfactants, Zeolites. Less than 5% Non-Ionic Surfactants, Polycarboxylates, Phosphonates. Also contains: Enzymes, Perfumes, Citronellol.Made in UK. 10p per wash๐Ÿ”นFairy non-bio pods:>30% Anionic Surfactants, 5-15% Soap, <5% Non-Ionic Surfactants, Phosphonates, Polycarboxylates, Optical Brighteners, Perfumes.Made in France. 20p per wash.We have put an explanation of the ingredients at the end of this post, if anyone wants to know more. Although some of the ingredients are similar to the eco brands, e.g. surfactants, the eco brands tend to use plant based ingredients, in contrast to the petrochemicals favoured by some of the other companies.

Further articles on the subject:

Subscription suds: can a detergent-by-post model challenge the big brands? (The Guardian, Friday 16 November 2018

Phosphate Mining’s Significant Threats to Florida’s Water and Wildlife (Center for Biological Diversity)

Ethical Consumer guide to Laundry Detergents

So, for those of you who are proper nerds, let’s put the ingredients in these into plain English….remember just because something has a big long name doesn’t mean its bad, and the opposite is also true.

*Surfactants – these are basically detergents, molecules which have the ability to dissolve grease and stains in water so it can be rinsed away. It is extremely difficult to find an effective laundry product that does not contain a surfactant. The term surfactant can incorporate a really wide range of chemicals, some of which can be petrochemical based, and some of which can be harmful for your health, and the environment (either in production or in run-off). Without them being listed, its impossible to know what you are getting (a lot of eco brands list the specific detergent name for transparency e.g. cocoamidopropyl betaine in Greenscents, sodium cocosulfate in Ecoleaf; ecover hasn’t but their detergents are plant-based rather that petrochemical). Just to further complicate matters, plant based detergent can often be derived from palm oil! ๐Ÿ˜• Choose a brand with a good Ethical Consumer rating for palm oil (ECOS, Sodasan, Suma (Ecoleaf), Sonnett) – this will ensure the product is either palm oil free or RSPO certified. If a company is plant-based or palm oil free, they tend to shout about it.*Phosphonates- these are added to soften water. They are not as damaging to life as their closely related cousins the phosphates and organophosphates. Phosphate use in detergents etc is now limited by law. Phosphonates still cause environmental damage at the extraction phase though, the same as phosphate, via strip mining. Water can be softened with other, less damaging, minerals such as sodium bicarbonate.

*Optical brighteners – The most common of these are the ‘stilbenes’. These absorb light in the UV portion of the spectrum and re-emit it in the blue portion of the visible spectrum. A white surface treated with an optical brightener can emit more visible light than that which shines on it, making it appear brighter. The blue light emitted by the brightener compensates for yellowing of fabric over time. The jury is still out over how safe optical brighteners are – research has produced conflicting results. Many eco detergents exclude optical brighteners as a precaution, until we know for sure.

*Perfumes/fragrance: a massive black hole this one! Perfume can contain all kinds of undisclosed ingredients, including petrochemically derived compounds, hormone disruptors and carcinogens (cancer causing). To be fair to most of the eco companies fall down here. Top marks to Greenscents for using only essential oils and fully disclosing them.

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