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Chemicals in Consumer Products & Environmental Labels

Approximately 80,000 chemicals are known to be in commerce in the United States (cite), and few of these have been studied for their health and environmental effects. Many of these chemicals are essential for products to achieve their intended purpose, yet some also have the potential to cause varying degrees of harm to people and the environment. Even when they are not essential to a product’s function, added chemicals are used to improve, set apart, and define products. Many consumers are concerned about the potential harm that can occur from exposure to chemicals in the products they us, however, they are often forced to balance the benefits and conveniences these products offer with incomplete or conflicting information about the potential harm that their chemical ingredients may cause.

Below are examples of products that contain well known hazardous chemicals, some of which are regulated by the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).

  • Paints
  • Plumbing products
  • Jewelry
  • Toys
  • Cosmetics
  • Packaging
  • Treated wood

In addition to the chemicals they contain, consumer products can cause varying degrees of harm to the environment throughout their life cycles from production to disposal. Armed with information environmentally-minded consumers can also balance their environmental concerns with the benefits and conveniences of various products by reading and understanding environmental labels. Environmental labels allow a consumer to identify, prioritize and evaluate specific environmental impact within each life cycle phase of many of the products they purchase.

Life Cycle of a Consumer Product


Environmental labels were created “to help consumers evaluate the environmental attributes of the products and services they are considering buying.”[1] Based on consumer demand, the number of these labels has grown exponentially. Some labels are comprehensive and address multiple environmental issues; others are very specific, focusing on a single environmental issue or attribute such energy or water consumption. Additionally, a number of consumer products make environmental claims, such as being biodegradable or recyclable. Whatever their intent, when read and understood correctly, understanding the different types of environmental labels can allow consumers to better identify “safer” products, question products that make dubious environmental claims, and evaluate and prioritize the environmental issues that are most important to them.

Many environmental labels are used to inform consumers that a product has been designed to lessen one or more negative environmental impact during one or more of the phases of its life cycle (manufacturing, transportation, use phase, disposal).

Product Life Cycle Phases

Impacts can occur in any of the life cycle stages and include:

  1. Air quality impacts (Ozone, greenhouse gases, smog)
  2. Human and ecosystem health impacts (Water quality (including drinking water), soil quality, )
  3. Use of resources (Minerals, trees, fossil fuels, water, energy, land)

Environmental labels try to inform consumers of a company’s effort to reduce impacts in at least one of these categories

Types of Environmental Labels

Environmental labels are considered either mandatory or voluntary. Mandatory labels share the following characteristics:

  • They address the negative attributes of a product;
  • They are commonly administered by government agencies; and
  • They usually are required by law.

In general, mandatory labels provide hazard warning information required to be displayed on products. This information can help consumers minimize exposure when using or discarding a product.

Voluntary labels usually only address the positive attributes of a product and can be either first-party certified or third-party certified. First-party certification labels are always positive and are developed internally by companies, typically using Federal Trade Commission guidelines. Third party certification labels certify through the use of a logo (seal of approval), that a product is environmentally preferable to other similar products based on some criteria.

Types of Environmental Labels

Mandatory labels can be useful to consumers particularly when attempting to minimize exposure but fall outside the scope of this page. For a list of mandatory labels and links to the government programs that implement them please click here.