Sustainable detergents - one standard for all

13th of March 2014
Sustainable detergents - one standard for all

A brand new standard has been developed by Europe’s leading producers of sustainable detergents, called the Greenway Standard. The focus is on economical, ecological and social issues, all at the same time. This is a significant challenge, explains Peter Malaise, consultant on sustainable development issues, writing exclusively for ECJ.

Aren’t all detergents sustainable? Unfortunately not – but as a matter of fact it depends on what your definition of ‘sustainable’ is. ‘Sustainable’ is not the same as ‘biodegradable’; and only the smaller part of most detergent formulations - the surfactants - must legally be biodegradable. Surfactants make up between three and 20 per cent of a detergent formula, depending on the type of product, leaving between 80 and 97 per cent unaccounted for.

Besides, the fact that part of a detergent is biodegradable doesn’t say anything about its aquatic toxicity, or about the stable metabolites it might generate. Nor does it make clear if the carbon based raw materials used were from fossil or from renewable sources and if the transformation technology used ‘green’ chemistry principles and was keen on energy and waste. Uhhh...?

Yes, the detergent business is all too often clear as mud. Detergents are a very complex type of commodity, which we use on a daily basis - mostly without much thought or afterthought - and about which we don’t know too much, even when we’re professional users. It is the obvious tool which does the dirty job and that’s it.

It was in the early 1960s that detergents first came under official scrutiny. For a good reason: the foam they generated built up in and around the river and canal locks, hampered ship traffic and even caused people to die by suffocation or drowning. In the wake of those events came Europe-wide legislation on the biodegradability of their main components, the surfactants. These ‘surface active’ ingredients are the workhorses of detergents, they lower the surface tension and dramatically improve the water’s own cleaning effect.

Impact of surfactants

Unfortunately surfactants also dramatically increase the impacts of detergents on our natural environment and our health. The compulsory biodegradability made the problem disappear visually (no foam anymore), and the waste water purification plants that spread over Europe some decades ago reduced the global impact of detergents to some extent. But the substantial growth in the use of detergents overruled this by far.

Today there is hardly any market segment that does not use them for one application or another. Pesticides and insecticides contain them for better spreading and penetration of the plant substance; in medicine, they improve the quick absorption into our system - just as a few examples.

Ingredients unavailable

From the 1980s onwards, in the wake of alternatives for chemical agriculture, food additives, cosmetics and the like, the first offers for another type of detergents came into the market. It was a difficult start: the conventional detergents had continued to walk down performance lane and were often complete overkill, whereas their (mainly unregulated) environmental and health impact was rocketing.

Sustainable ingredients were rarely available and when they were they were not able to generate an efficiency comparable to the heavyweight, but unsustainable chemistry of the conventional products. It took more than 20 years before sustainable detergent producers had a reasonable choice of ingredients that were sustainable as well as satisfactory in terms of performance.

In 1993 the EU set up an ecolabel initiative for detergents. Until 2003 it was hardly noticed and there were next to no products aiming for it, as many of the leading organisations in the sustainability realm judged the criteria too weak and too permissive. As a matter of fact the main aim of the EU label was – in its own words – to certify detergents “that were less of a burden to the environment” and secondly, to have as many of them as possible. In that perspective the requirements for such a label should not be too explicit.

Several certification organisations for organic produce – amongst them ICEA in Italy, the Soil Association in the UK and Ecocert in France – each proposed their own, stricter standard.  The difficulty was, and continues to be, the technical and environmental complexity of detergents and the insight that is needed to create a sustainable and efficient alternative. It’s not because you can develop an excellent set of certification criteria for organic produce that you can deliver something similar for detergents (and the other way round, of course).

Most producers of sustainable detergents – the ones that mainly or exclusively produce sustainable alternatives, that is - were dissatisfied with each and every label or certification around: none of them encompassed the full set of values they were operating with.

Concept drafted

In the winter of 2011 French, Italian and Belgian producers who had previously met privately started talking to each other and to some external experts. The outline of a mutual concept was drafted and the development began. In the winter of 2012 a non-profit association was created: The Greenway to Life, with a registered office in Paris and a technical office in Pianiga, Italy. In February 2013 the new Greenway Standard was presented during a press conference at the Biofach in Nürnberg, the worldwide most important organic fair.

The foundations of the Greenway Standard are the principles of sustainable development. That means a focus on economical, ecological and social issues at the same time, which is quite a challenge.

For the practical implementation two tools have been created:

• A standard in text format of about 60 pages, which describes in detail all the requirements to which a candidate detergent has to respond and the ethical, ecological, social or technical motivation behind the requirements. This standard gives full detail of test protocols and the thresholds to be respected, the standard product formulae to test against and the classifications that can be obtained. There is also a marked attention for terminology in the communication

• An online calculation module accessible for members through a VPN connection. The module consists of a huge detergent ingredients database with an evaluation and classification of each ingredient. All chemical, biochemical, biological and safety data which are available today are taken in account and are used in the calculation by the database engine. Any formula can be introduced and immediately evaluated on its eligibility for labelling. When a negative outcome occurs, the applicant gets indications about the underlying reasons.

Before engaging in a certification trajectory the applicant can himself check, correct and fine-tune whatever issue that might come up. Besides this evaluation process he needs to introduce data from an external lab on the aquatic toxicity and the performance of the submitted formula.

Once he gets a ‘yes’ from the calculation module, the dedicated external experts of Greenway recheck the submitted formula on its overall conformity with the Greenway Standard. When they agree, the applicant can indicate an external auditor of his choice to run an audit, both theoretical and in his premises. After a positive outcome, the Greenway label will be granted to the detergent.

It’s important to stress that all criteria are based on open, scientifically sound standards and all testing on similarly open protocols, such as used by the scientific community worldwide and by most detergent producers. That guarantees the highest level of compliance with market standards, a criticism which is often uttered against ‘green’ labelling

Differences and merits

There are many ecolabels from a variety of sources on the market today, a quick internet search can easily feature up to 400 ‘green’ or supposedly ‘green’ labels. Nevertheless the Greenway Standard can make a difference:

• The Greenway non-profit association is the first multi-stakeholder initiative on sustainable detergents where producers, experts, and representatives from distributors and professional and private consumers will cooperate

• As an independent civil initiative, Greenway is not tainted by political or commercial influences and its members are estimated by many NGO’s

• Sustainable development is one pillar of the label, not an add-on, and an inextricable part of the global approach

• Product performance is the other pillar of the label and safeguards that labelled products are not just ‘green’, but also efficient detergents

• The product criteria were set up by professionals from the international sustainable detergent market segment, producers and experts alike

• The Greenway Standard is complying with actual scientific and technical knowledge and will be constantly updated by the dedicated experts

• The audits are done by qualified certification bodies, independent of Greenway.

There has been a very positive reaction from several certification bodies throughout Europe: they acclaim the high technical quality and the professionalism of the criteria, as well as the care for transparency and objectivity in the approach.

Further developments are to be expected soon and can be followed on
Peter Malaise can be contacted at


Our Partners

  • ISSA Interclean
  • EFCI
  • EU-nited