The Securities and Exchange Commission has been pushing for companies to submit filings written in "plain English." I wish there could be a similar effort for labels on household items like detergent and toothpaste. Reporting financial data in a way we can all understand is supposed to keep publicly traded companies honest. Similarly, having to tell consumers more about the ingredients they use in products to control tartar or remove stains might influence the chemicals they use. Companies that make household cleaners and detergents don't have to tell you what's in them. Makers of items like shampoo and body lotion list ingredients, but they don't seem to care that you need a chemist to make heads or tails of them. While the government might have approved ingredients for public use, plenty are still being studied for their effects on the environment and our bodies. It's not surprising that the more natural a product's ingredients are, the more willing a company is to tell you about it. Take a look at a label on the laundry detergent sold by Trader Joe's, the specialty grocery chain. Its ingredients include plant-based surfactants, soy-based fabric softener and lavender. I have a pretty good idea of what's washing my clothes. In contrast, the label on Clorox ( CLX) bleach tells me it's made of 6% sodium hypochlorite and 94% "other ingredients." Sodium hypochlorite is caustic and potentially toxic. So what's in the other 94% of the solution?
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), Procter & Gamble ( PG) and Church & Dwight ( CHD) 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.