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Labeling Holds Product Makers Accountable

Stocks in this article: PG CL CLX

It's no coincidence that the same day that SC Johnson announced it would start publicly disclosing its products' ingredients, it also said it would phase out the use of phthalates, a potentially hazardous group of industrial compounds.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the health effects of phthalates aren't fully known, but several studies have suggested they affect hormone production. These chemicals, which do everything from help fragrances last longer to make vinyl flexible, have been used in children's products, but are now being eliminated.

Johnson, whose products include Windex glass cleaner and Saran plastic wrap, is making an effort to list ingredients on labels and on its Web site in a way that's easier to understand. The Racine, Wis.-based company's moves have been lauded by environmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earth Justice, which is suing Colgate-Palmolive (CL - Get Report), Procter & Gamble (PG - Get Report) and Church & Dwight (CHD - Get Report) for being less forthcoming.

I agree that some effort is better than none. But anything a company does voluntarily, it can do on its own terms.

Check out SC Johnson's "What's Inside" Web site. While the ingredients of some products, such as those in its Nature's Source line, are clear, others remain murky. Its Shout Wipes, which help remove stains from clothes, contain alkyl alcohol ethoxylate and sodium lauryl sulfate, which are vaguely described as "cleaning agents."

I don't expect SC Johnson to address the controversy that surrounds sodium lauryl sulfate, a common chemical in toiletries. But it can take a stab at explaining what the substance is: a sodium-based powder that creates suds.

As imperfect as SC Johnson's disclosure efforts are, the company outpaces other consumer-product makers. I hope others follow its lead so it's less of a challenge to find out what's in my toothpaste.

Eileen P. Gunn writes about the business of life and is the author of "Your Career Is An Extreme Sport." You can learn more about her at her Web site.
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