Since I was a teenager in the Seventies, I’ve always regarded myself as a pretty green. Green in the environmental sense that is. I remember the campaign to get lead out of petrol with affection. I studied Environmental Science at university and can remember talking long into the night about issues affecting the planet. I think I even joined the Ecology Party, the forerunner of the Green Party when I was about 18 – though I don’t remember doing anything other than pay the subscription.
Jobs were short when I graduated and I got a job formulating cosmetics rather than doing the environmental work I had originally had in mind. I was surprised to find myself in an industry where people seemed pretty positive about issues close to my heart. Biodegradable surfactants were a new thing but there was never any question of using anything else. I have spoken on other blogs about the fact that formaldehyde was still in use then, but was being removed purely at the initiative of the chemists in the labs.
Given this, I have always listened with care and attention to the environmental lobby. For a long time I didn’t have any problem with being an environmentalist as well as being a scientist at the same time as developing cosmetics. They all seemed to be going in the same direction.
So when I first heard about an American pressure group called the Environmental Working Group I was predisposed to support them. I came across the Skin Deep database and was initially quite impressed with the idea. In fact I am still impressed with the idea. Why not collect all the information about cosmetic raw materials onto a database and make it available to the public. I hope somebody does it some day. Even when I started looking things up on the Skin Deep database and found it to be almost comically inaccurate I still gave the people behind it the benefit of the doubt. I imagined enthusiastic young volunteers – probably in California – punching data in during all night long sessions powered by idealism and pizza. I assumed that they would be getting complaints and would be putting it right shortly. You always have to give people a bit of time to get things straight.
Then I saw the Story of Cosmetics video. This really changed things. Whatever else you think of it, this is a professional piece of work. Time, effort and money has gone into it. And you can’t miss that it is propaganda not advocacy. It sets out to scare.
Even now, I was prepared to justify it to some extent in my mind – as you will see if you read my post from only a few days ago. They had gone off the scale for accuracy, but maybe they felt that they had to use modern techniques to get their message across. I started to think of the EWG as sort of green Lenninists. They had betrayed the ideals of the revolution, but they were still radicals. They had chosen the wrong way to go about fighting the system, but they were still against the system. Even when I heard about the very large salaries that the directors of the EWG were drawing from their organisation I still did not realise what was really going on.
But now I understand. Did I say I was green? Well I sure was. Green in the sense of being inexperienced and unknowing in the ways of the world.
Today I saw a hand out from a recent trade fair in the US. In it, a company called American Private Label, was pitching its services to American retailers. Consumers, it says, want safe cosmetics. What are safe cosmetics? Well you have to avoid parabens, phthalates, synthetic fragrances etc. But it wasn’t a list of all the things that have got bad head lines. It was specifically the things that the EWG have been campaigning about. Helpfully the names as they appear on the ingredient list that you needed to avoid were spelled out.
Almost every product on the market would fall foul of this list, including ones from companies that specialise in very green products.
Two things made it clear to me beyond any doubt that there was a link between this company and the EWG. First, one of the slides called for companies to sign the Safe Cosmetics Compact. This is being organised by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, definitely a group completely within the EWG’s orbit. Secondly, they described their services as Green Chemistry. I was instantly reminded of the reference in the Story of Cosmetics to green chemists who were working to solve the problems caused by the unsafe ingredients in modern cosmetics. I had no more thought that these green chemists actually existed than that the supposed carcinogens in shampoo actually existed.
I had taken it as an a bit of idealistic wishful thinking. In fact it was a sales plug.
Now things that had puzzled me fell into place. The EWG’s ambition is no mean one. They intend to create a new category of cosmetic product and to supply that category via American Private Label and probably other companies as well. American Private Label already offer branding, packaging, QC and manufacturing. But no doubt there are other sales to be made.
Now I could see it all. I had imagined the EWG, which is extremely well funded, had got its money from donations. Clearly not – this is big business in every sense of the word. Why were they ignoring pleas from small natural companies who you would think would be their natural allies? Because they are in fact their competition. Why is the science on their website and in their reports so poor? Because it isn’t science at all. The aim is to make a case against their competition not inform the public about risk.
And let me emphasise this proposition is aimed at retailers. It is not a grassroots consumer protest. The video has been created as part of a programme to sell stuff. The Safe Cosmetic Act is a publicity stunt. If it alarms small producers, that is irrelevant. If it infuriates scientists, that doesn’t matter. The object is to deliver a tranche of consumers to the shops who will seek out ‘safe’ cosmetics. And just as importantly they will be in a position to satisfy that demand with suitable products. In his talk, David Pollack the CEO of American Private Label said that retailers should create ‘safe cosmetic’ areas in their stores. These would be much like the organic sections they currently have.
And I think the retailers will listen. As the front page of American Private Label’s website says, the margins on this new category will be good. I bet they will. Will they be safer? That question will probably not have even crossed their minds. But just to be absolutely clear I believe that there will be no difference in safety between ‘safe’ products and established ones.
So I think I should end this post with an apology. I write this blog with the idea that as an industry insider I have some knowledge and insight that might be useful to people who use the products of my industry. I genuinely believed that I sort of knew what was going on. But I have just realised that I completely missed the biggest marketing coup this business has ever seen. I really couldn’t have got things more wrong. Far from being a well meaning but flawed attempt to make the world better, the Story of Cosmetics is a sales pitch. Nothing more.
From the UK, Colin Sanders has been a formulator of cosmetic and topical pharmaceuticals for 27 years. Over that time he has formulated nearly every category of product including shampoos, cosmetic skin creams, pharmaceutical skin creams, face masks, lip balms and so on. He has been an active member of the Society of Cosmetic Scientists since 1985 and in 1999 organised the first of the Formulate shows. His degree is in environmental science and he continues to take a keen interest in the impact of human activities on the planet. He regards himself as an environmental activist and all round green. When not in the lab, he writes a blog, Colin’s Beauty Pages with the intention of entertaining and hopefully informing users of cosmetic and personal care products with some insider insights, a bit of science and his own opinions.