It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s… DfE!

June 26, 2009

By Lindsay Muscato, HSC Writer/Communications Specialist

 Dfebng150The whole premise of countless superhero movies and comic books rests on the idea that somewhere, unbeknownst to us, someone is making the world a safer place. Maybe this is overstating things (I get excited about green cleaning!), but that's exactly what the Design for the Environment (DfE) program, run by the EPA, is doing for green cleaning products. I spoke on the phone with Clive Davies, chief of the DfE program, to learn more about the science behind DfE's label.

In a nutshell, what does DfE do for consumers, industries and the environment?

DfE does two basic things. First, we allow the use of our logo. That provides an incentive for manufacturers to work with us to improve the environmental and human health profile, see if a chemical might cause cancer or be a skin sensitizer. Allowing the use of our logo on products is kind of an incentive. The other thing that we do is work with industries that use chemicals which are problematic in some way. If there are chemicals that are showing up in people’s blood or the environment, we pull together a multi-stakeholder group and find a mutually acceptable path forward. Usually what we do is compare a bunch of chemicals that are possible alternatives and then we help people choose or make the information available, which helps them avoid the potential for unintended consequences. We make sure people aren’t going to run into trouble down the line.

When and how did the DfE program begin?

About 15 years ago we started to ask, how do you help foster the adoption of green chemistry in the real world? Folks have come up with these safer chemicals, but if people don’t use them or if people don’t make them, so what?

When we started in 1997, we began working on lots of things: undercoating for airplanes, better deicers, and cleaning products. About five years ago there was a huge surge of demand for partnership with our program, in the area of cleaning products. Before that we were kind of going from area to area to find a safer way of doing something. We’ve labeled almost 1,100 safer products.

In your opinion, how does DfE compare to other major ecolabels in the marketplace? How would you describe as the level of health and environmental protection that DfE offers to the end user of recognized products?

We make sure that people use green chemistry in every ingredient in the formulation. We don’t think of the formulation as one big jug of stuff that you have to test. You think of what goes in there. And all of those things have different types of environmental health and human profiles. We want to make sure every ingredient is the safest in its class, whether it’s solvents, chelators, surfactants, etc.

We get the safest stuff in the bottle. While some other labelers make sure they don’t use the very worst stuff, we’re getting people to use the best stuff. Banned ingredients are just a starting point for us. The other folks in general have an aquatic toxicity test that they do and they look at the bottom line but could end up with a diluting effect that masks chronic toxicity.

What do you hope the DfE label represents to the consumer, when they see it on a product package?

What I believe the label conveys is credible science. We rely on partners to promote our program. We think that the best use of that money is to make sure that the science is right. My feeling is that as it's used more and more, people will begin to recognize DfE-labeled products as representing credible science standing behind people and the environment.