I’ve never been much of a hardcore Whole Foods Market shopper (except for that summer in college when I worked at one) nor do I really keep up with Whole Foods-related happenings as I’m pretty dedicated to my Fairway/Trader Joe’s/Asian vegetable market/Syrian bakery food shopping routine. Honestly, the last thing I need is another grocery store in my life. But for those of you who do frequent the Austin-based chain of overpriced but oh-so-good-for-you edibles, here’s some interesting news … and it doesn’t even relate to food, whole or otherwise.

On Earth Day, Whole Foods launched an Eco-Scale Rating System that evaluates household cleaning products making the already socially and environmentally progressive company the first national retailer to provide a color-coded cleaning product rating system for consumers. I do find this a bit curious since Whole Foods doesn’t really stock anything that’s bleach-y, caustic, or toxic to begin with. Is it necessary to rate cleaning products that have already been vetted as safter than conventional cleaners found at “normal” grocery stores? Will Whole Foods shoppers pay mind to a system that evaluates cleaning products for “environmental impact, safety, efficacy, source, labeling and animal testing?”

The great-to-work-for corporate brass at Whole Foods seem to think so given that full-disclosure of cleaning product ingredients isn’t yet mandated by the Feds. Under the Eco-Scale rating system, household cleaners sold by Whole Foods will be rated Red, Orange, Yellow, or Green. Products that don't disclose ingredients land in the Red spectrum and will be discontinued or reformulated. Does Whole Foods even carry cleaning products that would quality as red, anyways? What’s the point of including it?

Products that rate Orange, the baseline rating, must be free of phosphates, chlorine, or artificial colors; to score Yellow, a product must meet Orange criteria and contain 100 percent natural fragrances and possess minimal safety concerns; Green-rated products meet both Orange and Yellow standards and contain 100 percent natural, non-petroleum ingredients. Read the full, detailed breakdown of the Whole Foods Eco-Scale here and check out of this list of ingredients that Whole Foods finds unacceptable.

Jim Speirs, global vice president of procurement for Whole Foods Market, sums up the mission Eco-Scale in a press release

Shoppers have a right to know what’s actually in the products they use to clean their homes. We’ve always carefully monitored ingredients. Now, with Eco-Scale, we’re able to help shoppers buy eco-friendly products with confidence and provide safer alternatives for their households and for the planet as a whole.
As of now, 14 Whole Foods brand cleaning products and 34 products from natural cleaning brands Better Life, Ecover, Green Shield, and Method will be rated. The ultimate goal is to audit all household cleaners carried by Whole Foods by April 2012 and remove any that, at a minimum, do not meet Orange criteria.

I really do applaud Whole Foods for paving the way here but this has got me thinking: is there such thing as transparency overkill? Many of the cleaning product brands carried by Whole Foods like Seventh Generation and Biokleen are already pretty transparent when it comes to disclosing ingredients and have avid followers that trust and believe in their products. 

While I don’t think a stringent third-party verification system like Eco-Scale is a bad thing, I do wonder about what kind of impact it will have on the purchasing habits of eco-savvy Whole Foods shoppers. I’d love to see a system like this at a general merchandise retailer like Target, not an organic and natural food grocery store, where Red-rated items — chlorine beach toilet bowel cleaners, drain de-cloggers, and the like — are indeed sold alongside natural selections that would score an Orange, Yellow, or Green at Whole Foods.  

What do you think? Do you think it makes any sense for a retailer that caters to a largely eco- and health-conscious clientele and already stocks only natural cleaning product brands like Seventh Generation to further audit and rate products? Whole Foods shoppers: Will the Eco-Scale change the way you shop for cleaning products at the store? Or not really? 

See also:

Green cleaning solutions

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Whole Foods comes clean with Eco-Scale rating system
Whole Foods Market unveils a rating system for household cleaning products sold in its stores. But is additional transparency really necessary in a store that a