One Product Label for the Entire U.S.

One Product Label for the Entire U.S.
AP Photo/Alan Diaz, File
One Product Label for the Entire U.S.
AP Photo/Alan Diaz, File
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Washington is paralyzed by conflict over consumer and environmental regulations. Rules ranging from pesticide control to emission limits are stalled because of legislative or legal challenges.

It doesn’t have to be that way. California recently took the lead in mandating the clear communication of ingredients in popular cleaning products with the passage of a new law. 

The Cleaning Product Right to Know Act, authored by state Sen. Ricardo Lara and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown late last year, requires extensive disclosure of ingredients of household and commercial cleaners and auto care products. It was the result of months-long negotiations between environmental advocates and name-brand consumer product companies, a rare example of agreement in today’s polarized political landscape.

The law is important nationally. As a practical matter, it doesn’t make financial or business sense for manufacturers to revise their packaging just for the products they sell in California. Most manufacturers and retailers want one label for the entire U.S. market.

Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, announced it will voluntarily accept California’s law because it meets its own disclosure requirements for the cleaning products it sells. Other major retailers are considering doing the same.  

While this is progress, manufacturers still face the potential for different rules across the U.S. with either states or retailers establishing conflicting requirements that create confusion along with significant added costs. Congress can change this by pursuing a national solution that incorporates the collaborative spirit of California’s successful negotiation to guide much-needed federal action.  

A single, nationally recognized standard has long been needed to replace the complicated and increasingly incompatible set of disclosure rules now issued by states and retailers. In addition, without such a standard, consumer and commercial prices on cleaners would surely rise if regional labeling was necessary. 

It wasn’t easy to find a consensus. Environmental and public health groups believe that consumers and workers need to know a lot more about the cleaning products in their kitchens, bathrooms and work spaces. Product manufacturers want labels that educate their customers about safety without alarming them unnecessarily or providing details so minute that they obscure serious messages about human health. 

California wisely avoided this clutter by giving companies the option of disclosing on their package labels either the intentionally added ingredients or the ingredients that concern health experts the most. A comprehensive explanation of ingredient information must also be provided online.

The balanced solution that California lawmakers devised allows consumers and workers to see the facts they really need to know because the labeling includes important ingredients, such as those that have been linked to various health concerns. 

The law was backed by more than 100 environmental and public health groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, Women’s Voices for the Earth and the Environmental Working Group, as well as cleaning product giants such as ECOLAB, Procter & Gamble, Reckitt Benckiser and SC Johnson. Both sides compromised after numerous meetings -- a clear sign of a successful negotiation.

But everyone also won something in California: A law that mandates ingredient communication so people can make better-informed decisions about the products they use in their homes and at work. If only Washington could follow this example, the entire country would also benefit. 

Steve Caldeira is president and CEO of the Household & Commercial Products Association.

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