Even green chemistry products have shades of brown.
The Shaklee cleaner contains a small amount of a germ-killing biocide used as a preservative. Avalon got rid of parabens but uses glycol ethers as preservatives.
Sometimes consumers have to make sacrifices in the pursuit of green. Method and Shaklee products, for example, are not disinfectants, because antibacterial substances are toxic and not naturally derived.
The greenest products are 100% vegetable, made entirely of renewable, natural feedstocks that are not chemically modified. Less green are those that include minerals or inorganic materials.
Shaklee Corp.'s dish-washing detergent, for example, contains sodium carbonate. The least green of the products use petrochemicals or animal substances.
"You can always say, I can do this greener," said Koester, Cognis' marketing director. "But you don't want to go back to washing your hair with soap, do you? That would be the consequence of going too green."
But more and more, the world's largest chemical companies are looking for substitutes for some of the old petrochemicals that made them global powerhouses.
BASF, which has $90 billion in annual sales, invented a plasticizer with no phthalates, which are estrogen-mimicking compounds used to make vinyl. It is marketed in China, where 80% of toys are produced.
DuPont is using cornstarch as a key building block to make polyester. Dow Chemical Co. is turning soybeans into a compound for polyurethane foam and building a plant in Brazil that will use sugar cane to make plastic for use in grocery bags and other products.
Green chemistry is "not just a niche anymore," said Neil Hawkins, Dow's vice president of sustainability.
"When you have retailers like Wal-Mart setting environmental goals," he said, "it creates a demand and a ripple effect for new, innovative products. I see some real changes right now, driven by the market."