Logos are powerful in driving consumer preferences.  My three-year-old loves the Starbucks logo because he knows it means cookies for him and a chai latte for mommy.  The Energy Star logo often plays an important role in consumer decisions ranging from major appliance purchases to which light bulbs to buy.  LEED Certification logos are coveted by developers.  We love our logos.

Perhaps less known is EPA’s Design for the Environment (“DfE”) logo.  Established in 1990s as a voluntary pilot program, EPA has approved thousands of products over the years for the DfE logo, including household cleaning products such as all-purpose cleaners, laundry detergents, kitchen and bath products, floor care products, degreasers, etc.  The DfE logo consists of a globe surrounded by the words “U.S. EPA” and “Design for the Environment.”

Given the inability of lawmakers to agree on revamping the Toxic Substances Control Act (“TSCA”), many champion EPA’s foray into driving consumer chemical preferences through the DfE logo program.  However, EPA’s DfE program has faced criticism from watchdog groups.  Most recently, the program has been criticized for endorsing products with fragrances.

Companies seeking to stamp EPA’s globe on their products must submit the ingredients of each product to EPA for approval.  Products may display the DfE logo when their ingredients meet the screening criteria of the DfE scientific review team, which considers the environmental and human health effects of each ingredient.  The goal is for companies to replace harsher chemicals with those that the DfE review team has deemed “safer.”

Under EPA’s DfE system, product ingredients fall into functional classes – essentially categories of ingredients that are necessary to make the products effective.  Yet, according to the Children’s Environmental Health Network (“CEHN”), not all of these categories are required for product efficacy.  Three weeks ago, in a letter co-signed by leaders of the American Lung Association, the National Medical Association, and other organizations, the CEHN urged EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to prohibit fragrances from the allowable ingredient categories in DfE-labeled products.  Fragrances, CEHN argues, are not necessary ingredients.

As Congress continues to debate the modernization of TSCA, the EPA is building a brand of customer recognition in the chemical world.  At a conference in early March, the Director of EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics suggested that EPA will increasingly be focused on improving the logo’s visibility and viability among individual purchasers.  Yet, given the issues CEHN and other groups are raising regarding fragrances, not to mention an abundance of other “green” labels popping up all over the household products market, will the DfE label really resonate with parents in supermarkets?  Will EPA respond to CEHN’s concerns by amending ingredient categories to exclude or place greater limitations on fragrances?  While the DfE label will probably never generate from consumers the kind of excitement about household products that the Starbucks mermaid elicits from my son, it remains to be seen whether the DfE logo will draw consumers to products with the same degree of success that the Energy Star program has yielded.