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Opting Out of Toxins
Sarah Rich, 15 Feb 07
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In the early 1960s, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring sparked an early fire beneath the organic food movement, instilling fear in consumers of unwittingly ingesting poisonous chemicals and becoming victims to an industrial agriculture that was blind to human welfare. Before long, though, fear turned to awareness, and awareness into opportunity. Along the way, being an organic consumer went from a lifestyle of limitation in the grocery aisle (or toiling in your home vegetable garden), to a new wave of abundance, and being an organic food producer went from risky to rewarding. The same holds true for numerous items we use daily, such as cleaning supplies, personal care products, and cosmetics. The more reason there is for caution, the more opportunity arises to rethink and redesign the stuff we need.

Today's New York Times featured two different articles about consumers' gravitation towards products that are made from ingredients that don't pose a threat to their health -- ingredients with names they can pronounce (in less than ten syllables) and origins they can envision. An article about home cleaning products attributes much of this rising demand to people's concerns for their children, and mounting evidence that chemicals in cleaning products can contribute to asthma and other health issues which are ever more common among kids. As one parent pointed out, when you think about it, it's pretty strange that we lock up household cleaners to be sure our kids don't touch them, but then we use them to spray the tables where they eat and the tubs where they bathe. Sure, it's much more dangerous for a kid to drink the stuff than bathe in it, but prolonged exposure to trace amounts can pose real hazards, too.

Starting a green cleaning supply business is a good prospect, since the driving factor motivating customers to choose one of these non-toxic products is emotional: safety and peace of mind. The Times article highlights a company called BabyGanics, founded by two enterprising parents who wanted to clean house with products their baby could touch safely. Clearly it's a founding mission that holds plenty of marketability, tugging as it does on the heart strings of caring parents.

And for the set not swayed by the sweet innocence of babies, there's always sex appeal. A few years ago, Method Home achieved some advertising perfection with a campaign featuring naked people cleaning house with Method brand products (the implicit message, of course, being that you'd never expose your bare skin to ordinary cleaning products). I saw Method founder, Eric Ryan, speak when that campaign was running, and besides presenting their brilliant marketing strategy, he pointed out (and this was in 2005) that their tiny little start-up had gotten huge companies like Unilever shaking in their boots over the potential power of marketing a harmless alternative to their known-to-be-deadly household staples, sending their R&D teams scrambling to come up with a competitive line.

Well now it's 2007, and the Times reports that S.C. Johnson & Son is making ammonia-free Windex products. Clearly the sector's Goliaths have found it worthwhile to keep making headway in the competition against their tiny -- but smart and fierce -- competitors. And Method's not so tiny any more. Their products can be found alongside the standards in most supermarkets, drugstores and big boxes (and accompanied by other booming green brands like Seventh Generation). And people want them -- they compete on price, and they warrant a spot outside a locked cabinet not only because they're non-toxic, but because they look good on a countertop.

The other investigation of toxics in the Times today looks at makeup. Whereas for a long time, the primary concern around cosmetics had to do with animal testing - a concern which in fact became ubiquitous enough to get most companies tacking "cruelty free" labels on their products -- now it's moving into demand for labeling about carcinogens and other damaging ingredients.

Momentum has been building for greater oversight of the chemicals in everyday products, with the European Union and California taking the lead in imposing new rules for monitoring what is in the perfumes, creams, nail polish and hair sprays that are sold.
The California Safe Cosmetics Act, which took effect on Jan. 1, requires cosmetics companies to tell state health authorities if a product contains any chemical on several government lists covering possible cancer-causing agents or substances that may harm the reproductive system.

Interestingly, the article points to ingredients generally considered "all natural," like lavender and tea tree oils, as being potential culprits in triggering significant hormonal changes in teenage boys.

Both articles discuss the challenges of imposing standard regulations for contents in cleaning and cosmetic products. Many of these industries have long been self-regulating and free from requirements to list every last thing in their formulas. Now that enigma is a turn-off for consumers, and companies face the challenge of either simplifying, detoxifying and becoming transparent, or incurring the growing mistrust of their conscious customer.

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Comments

Great article Sarah, and it's nice to see this topic getting the awareness it deserves.

The support of large retailers is helping also. Just last week I was congratulating my wife on her purchase of Seventh Generation dish soap. She said "it was easy, it was right there on the shelf at Target."


Posted by: foster on 16 Feb 07

i think it is also important to point out that although something is labeled as "natural" or even "organic" it may be anything but. You can put natural or organic ingredients in something, whether it be skincare, food, etc, but if you add synthetics and chemicals to the product, is it really natural/Organic?? All consumers must read the ingredient labels very carefully.


Posted by: Talia on 17 Feb 07

I appreciate being able to point my friends and family to increasingly available articles and information. I've suffered a lot of puzzled looks when I've mentioned the toxicity of household cleaners, cosmetics and air "fresheners". But I want to do more than mention, I want to enlighten. And I want to see the companies that produce these toxic substances lose money so maybe they will make changes that will benefit not only the consumer but their employees and maybe the entire planet.


Posted by: Dani on 19 Feb 07



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