Industry Scrambles to Save Green Labels From Chopping Block

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By Tiffany Stecker

The federal green stamp of approval for nontoxic household products could be squeezed as the EPA trims its budget, and supporters of the programs are fighting to keep it alive.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice program, created in the 1990s as “Design for the Environment” and rebranded in 2015, certifies paints, disinfectants, cleaners and other products as safer to use than the chemicals they replace. The green and blue label is approved for more than 2,000 products used in homes and businesses.

Companies, including the Clorox Co., BASF and Staples, view the label as a marketing advantage to attract the growing pool of environmentally-conscious consumers and provides a financial incentive to go green, rather than a regulatory prod. For smaller businesses, it offers a leg up on the competition.

“It’s opened up a whole world for me,” Mary Anne Auer, CEO of Wexford Labs, a Missouri-based company that makes hospital disinfectants using citric acid, told Bloomberg BNA.

Without the program, Auer said she would no longer be able to compete with larger companies.

“If they take that away, I’m just going to go back into the bushes,” she said.

The program gives businesses an advantage in competing for government contracts. The General Services Administration, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy have implemented green purchasing guidelines, and at least 10 states have recommendations or requirements for contracting from environmentally-friendly sources.

Companies to Vouch Support

But the program has its detractors. Some fault the system’s hazard-based approach, which looks at a chemical’s inherent toxicity. These critics, which include the American Chemistry Council and the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute, want a risk-based assessment that takes dose and exposure into account to decide a chemical’s risk to health and the environment. Even water is toxic, they say, if one drinks enough of it.

“Is it the appropriate goal of government to put a label on a product it decides is more environmentally safe?” asked Cal Dooley, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council in 2014. ACC declined to answer questions on the issue for this story.

The program did not make the list of potential cuts in a “pass-back” memo between the White House Office of Management and Budget and the EPA that was leaked to the media two weeks ago. The EPA declined to comment on whether any changes would be made to the program under the new administration.

But groups and companies in support of the program fear it may vanish with other voluntary, non-mandatory efforts as the incoming administration trims down the agency’s budget. Proponents have penned a letter to urge the new administration to keep the program intact.

“Frankly, I think a Trump administration that wants to see less regulation should want this voluntary program,” Phil Klein, executive vice president of legislative and public affairs for the Consumer Specialty Products Association, told Bloomberg BNA. CSPA, the American Sustainable Business Council, biotechnology trade association BIO, and the cleaning industry association’s ISSA, are planning to send the letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

The program has found itself in the crosshairs in past appropriations cycles. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) tried to attach a rider in the fiscal year 2017 Department of Defense spending bill that would have prevented DOD from using funds on several federal sustainability programs, including Safer Choice. The provision did not make it into the final version of the bill.

The hazard-based approach is “kind of an incomplete,” Competitive Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Angela Logomasini, said. “It’s kind of a way around employing full scientific standards.”

Tiny Budget, Big Benefits

Most green labeling schemes— the best known is GreenSeal—employ the same hazard-based approach. But Logomasini thinks the standard is inappropriate for a government-run program. Design for the Environment allowed the EPA to pressure flame retardant makers to quickly reformulate their products, risking the effectiveness of the chemical, she told Bloomberg BNA.

“It sends out a message to the regulated community: you better watch out, your product is being targeted by this,” she said. Myron Ebell, who led the Trump EPA transition team, also works at CEI.

Benjamin Dunham, a senior policy adviser at Holland & Knight LLP, is skeptical that the incoming administration will scrap Safer Choice. Many companies have invested significantly to affix the label to their product,. There’s no line-item for the program in the EPA’s budget, but Safer Choice is only a sliver of the EPA’s Pollution Prevention program’s $18 million spending, said Dunham.

“Safer Choice’s budget is basically a rounding error,” Dunham, a former staff member for the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), told Bloomberg BNA.

A risk-based approach would make it easier for producers to match their Safer Choice certification with regulatory programs, like California’s Proposition 65 program to assess carcinogenic substances, said Hal Ambuter, director of regulatory and government affairs for Reckitt Benckiser, owner of Lysol, Woolite and Calgon, among other brands.

But “short of that, the benefits of a government-based program outweigh the risks,” said Ambuter, a supporter of Safer Choice who would prefer to work with the EPA to improve the program than to end it altogether.

The program remains relevant after last year’s overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act, which sets up a process to evaluate the safety of chemicals in commerce. Klein of CSPA estimates that 15 to 20 chemicals will pass through the new TSCA screening process. For the thousands of chemicals that won’t be reviewed for decades, a program like Safer Choice creates an incentive for companies to use less toxic alternatives.

There are around 80 private sustainability labels, but Safer Choice is often the preferred choice because of the program’s congressional oversight, controlled pricing and rules to protect confidential business information, said Klein.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tiffany Stecker in Washington, D.C. at tstecker@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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