ONE: WELLNESS REVOLUTION
~ Rick lathers up ~
A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future.
THE SONG SAYS, OF NEW YORK CITY, that if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
So I think it’s an auspicious sign that the Sustainable Cosmetics Summit is now an annual event in the Big Apple. After arriving at the midtown Manhattan hotel where the event was being held in May 2012 and squeezing by Jude Law’s largish camera crew (he was filming a scene in the hotel lobby), I found myself in a fluorescent-lit room with a couple of hundred people. Despite the beckoning sunshine outside, they were—as evidenced by the large coffee mugs in hand—digging in for two days of back-to-back seminars.
“Eclectic” would be an apt word to describe the crowd. Over the next few days, I met representatives of wild shea nut harvesters from sub-Saharan Africa, jojoba farmers and producers of obscure natural scents and oils. Buttoned-up, corporate types from companies like Colgate-Palmolive mingled with former (or current) patchouli-redolent hippies and über-trendy, black-clad, celebrity hairdressers. What brought this diverse group together?
The smell, literally, of success.
Amarjit Sahota is the summit organizer and the head of London-based Organic Monitor, a research and consulting company specializing in the organic sector. According to Sahota, the growth of the natural and organic personal-care market is outpacing all other segments of the cosmetics industry. And we’re talking here about an industry that’s way more than makeup. From shampoo to shaving products, from fragrance to facial cleanser, these people define pretty much everything in your bathroom that you don’t put in your mouth. Though still comprising less than 10 percent of industry sales in Europe and North America, natural and organic cosmetics were nonetheless worth US$9.1 billion in 2011 and are growing at almost US$1 billion per year. I asked Sahota what was behind this phenomenon.
“It’s really a manifestation of a broader trend,” he told me. “What we are seeing globally is a general rise in ethical consumerism. People have become more discerning about the products that they buy. They’re asking more questions: Where is it made? Does it have synthetic chemicals? Is it being produced in an ecological way? This is happening with food, cosmetics, household cleaning products, clothing, toys, and the list goes on.”
Linda Gilbert, a Florida-based pollster who since 1990 has been tracking public attitudes related to sustainability and who presented her findings to the summit, agreed with Sahota. “The consumer interest in sustainability, and in particular limiting their exposure to pollution and toxic chemicals in their everyday lives, is a tidal wave. It’s transformational,” she told me. “It is impacting virtually every industry that you look at. The home-building industry, with the drive to low-VOC building materials. The food industry, with increased scrutiny of packaging. The transportation industry. The garden product industry. Consumers are becoming more and more aware of ways they can avoid chemicals in their lifestyles.”
Her blunt conclusion? “If companies don’t re-tool and re-invent themselves, they’re not gonna be in business.” Gilbert used the example of bisphenol A in baby bottles to illustrate her point. Over the past few years, the growing consumer backlash against the hormone-disrupting chemical has ensured that non-BPA bottles now dominate the market.
Gilbert calls this consumer awakening a wellness revolution. “Consumers in the United States have this growing sense that there’s a personal environment that they can and should control,” she explained. “They can’t control the global environment, but they can control what goes in their home, what goes on their lawn, what they’re breathing in because of fragrances and body lotion.” She maintains that for health reasons, and often with no particular reference to environmental concerns, consumers are looking to reduce exposure to synthetic chemicals in their daily life. Though about 15 percent of the population will never be interested in these issues, Gilbert admits (what she calls the “drill baby drill” demographic), her measurements indicate that the appetite for sustainable cosmetics is growing: “86 percent of all Americans are interested in making greener choices in their purchasing and, more specifically, 41 percent would do so with personal-care products in 2012, up three points since 2010. They are ready to make changes for a more eco-friendly lifestyle, and—significantly—willing to change brands to accomplish this.”1
Perhaps no person is more steeped in the phenomenon of green consumerism than Toronto author and columnist Adria Vasil. For 10 years, week in and week out, Vasil has been writing her cheeky “Ecoholic” column in Now magazine, answering questions about all manner of green conundrums (“Which blouse is more environmentally friendly: the one made from organic cotton or the one that’s rayon from sustainably harvested trees?”) and has parlayed her position as the “Dear Abby” of green into three bestselling books. Though some “green products” haven’t done so well, she told me as we chatted in my local park after the summit, she sees continual growth in public concern about toxic chemicals in personal-care products. “Pre-recession, when everyone was jumping on the green bandwagon and consumers en masse were starting to prioritize the environment as their number one concern, you were seeing everyone from bra stores to mainstream furniture outlets suddenly advertising a green line,” she said. “A lot of those came and went within a year of their release because they just didn’t sell.”
“What? Bra stores?” I asked, quite certain that I’d misunderstood.
“Sure,” she laughed. “La Senza had a green line and an organic line. But they were really boring products. I mean, they were brown, and every other product in La Senza was tropically coloured!”
In addition to the questionable aesthetics of the ill-fated eco-bras, Vasil told me, she’s convinced that the failure of some alleged “green” products and the success of others is related to the tangibility of the threat the products purport to address. “At the end of the day, the eco-bra was just a bra. And it tanked. But increasing demand for greener body-care products is far from plateauing,” she said. “Every time I walk into a drugstore, I see a new product, a new mainstream brand pushing a green claim. In those areas where people intuitively understand the products have an impact on their own health or their kids’ health, there’s some lasting power.”
When we realize the pollution is personal, we’re motivated to pay to avoid it.
In the Beginning …
If there’s one company in the beauty industry that has made natural ingredients the very core of its brand, it’s Aveda (its slogan is “The Art and Science of Pure Flower and Plant Essences”). Founded by Austrian celebrity hairdresser Horst Rechelbacher in 1978, Aveda was subsequently sold to Estée Lauder in 1997 and has since grown into a global presence. Like Apple, which has tried to define itself with a certain green grooviness, Aveda took some flak for not paying adequate attention to its environmental standards. But it has made up for lost time, now banning phthalates, parabens, sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and a variety of other nasties from its formulations. (See Table 1 for a short primer on these, and some other common chemicals found in cosmetics.) Aveda also boasts that it is the first beauty company to run its manufacturing on 100 percent wind power, and it uses all post-consumer materials in its packaging.
In Canada, Ray Civello has long been Mr. Aveda. He was the first to bring the line to Canada (starting by offering it in his salon over a muffin shop in Toronto’s east end), and he still has exclusive rights. In the mid-1980s, Aveda’s burgeoning delivery system was a bit quirky, and the product would regularly arrive frozen from its Minnesota distribution centre. Civello persevered, building double-digit sales growth, year over year, for more than two decades. A thoughtful environmentalist, opinionated about toxic chemicals and the need for more natural products, Civello has long put his money where his mouth is by supporting various charities such as Environmental Defence Canada.
I remember the first time I met Civello, nearly 10 years ago, at an event at Aveda’s Canadian headquarters in suburban Toronto. Given that “fashionable” isn’t the typical adjective that springs to mind when you picture environmentalists, my colleague and I were feeling just a tiny bit out of our depth at this gathering of nattily attired beauty-industry professionals. Civello was the epitome of cool in his finely tailored Prada suit, and as I listened to his motivational speech to his staff, it struck me how eloquent he was concerning the links between beauty, wellness and the environment. He later told me that his connection to Aveda and its social mission arose out of a difficult period in his life.
“I contracted mono, lost a lot of weight and was burned out on the whole rock-and-roll hairdresser lifestyle,” he said. “It was because I got sick that I started reading about sustainability and wellness. I just couldn’t function, and I realized I needed to change.” In the late 1980s, environmental sensibility in the industry was pretty thin, he recalled. “Basically, hairdressers didn’t care. In general, awareness of sustainability amongst people in beauty and fashion was not high. People didn’t think about what was in the products they were using. The priority was always how to get the end result. It didn’t matter about the product as much as the process,” he said, throwing up his hands at the memory. “In fact, the more difficult and unusual the process, the better they considered the experience to be.”
Things are completely different today. “Consumers are concerned. Yes, people want to look younger, but there’s a line in the sand now between doing it naturally or getting it immediately.” Rather than a quick fix like cosmetic surgery, more people are now asking questions like “Can I do this in a more gentle way? Can I be more preventative?” Civello sees this change in Aveda salons every day.
Aveda’s growth has been directly related to its ability to tap into the sustainability impulses of its customers. In fact, if there is a godfather of green-ness in the cosmetics world, it is surely the stylishly goateed, septuagenarian founder of the company, Horst Rechelbacher. If you research Rechelbacher, quite a few of the images you’ll find will show him drinking and eating Aveda products: nothing like chugging your hairspray and noshing on your lipstick to make a point. Such was his devotion to extolling the gospel of non-toxic, edible, plant-derived ingredients that he earned the nickname “Jojoba Witness.”
I was fortunate to be able to spend some time with Rechelbacher the evening before his keynote speech to the Sustainable Cosmetics Summit in New York City. His full-floor Lower Fifth Avenue penthouse (part of which used to be owned by the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe) boasts a distracting, nearly-360-degree view of the city. That night it felt a bit more crowded than it might otherwise be: Products from Rechelbacher’s new company, Intelligent Nutrients (IN), were piled up in the living room, ready for a launch the next day. “One of the first full lines to be certified USDA Organic,” he proudly told me. (Any product with this label meets the strict organic certification requirements for food set down by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) “Cosmetics are food,” Rechelbacher continued. “What we put on our body ends up in our body.” After selling Aveda to Estée Lauder for a tidy sum (US$300 million, I later found out), the organic cosmetics giant decided he wanted to start again.
“Activism to me is show and tell, rather than just tell,” he declared, “because if you don’t do it yourself, people will ask why.” Disgusted with the mainstream companies of the cosmetics industry that persist in using unsafe ingredients in their products, Rechelbacher has designed IN to be a showcase of what is possible. “The Holy Grail in cosmetics is supposed to be organic, but this is only as good as the person who makes it,” he said. “Even if you give a chef organic ingredients, she can still make shitty food. Or you can have a chef who is an artist, who understands food chemistry and flavours and their combinations, and she can make wonderful dinners. Cosmetics are the same.
“You know when people say they put lead in lipstick?” Rechelbacher said, leaning forward for emphasis. “They don’t put lead in lipstick; chemists are not that insane. But lead shows up during chemical processing of heavy metals. It also shows up by processing carbon, which is coal. Hair dyes are based on carbon technology. You need primary colours to do all colours. So blue comes from cobalt, yellow comes from sulphite. Those are the primary colours that are used in all colourings—from cosmetics to cars. I said to myself, ‘This is toxic. Why do we use this shit? What are the alternatives?’” He jabbed the air with his finger. “Food! You know there’s blue corn, there’s cranberries, and the list goes on. I’m the first to make a food supplement that’s a lipstick, a lip colour. There are no toxins, just nutritional benefits.”
The average woman allegedly eats about four pounds of lipstick during her lifetime. If she were using IN’s lip products, it would probably do her body good, given the nourishing ingredients detailed in the company’s promotional materials: nutrient-dense oils of acai, rosehip and black cumin and soothing, antioxidant-rich waxes and butters. Rechelbacher’s product descriptions read like menu listings of appetizers in a high-end restaurant, not something you’d find in a makeup bag.
Perhaps the best indication of the respect people have for Rechelbacher is that he took more than an hour for what was scheduled to be a 10-minute keynote speech at the summit the next morning, and nobody seemed to mind. As he exhorted the assembled in the room to be “bold” and urged them to connect with their raw ingredients because “restoration starts from the ground up—with seeds,” I couldn’t help thinking how far cosmetics had come. What could be more refined, more urban and more … well … antiseptic than the beauty industry? And yet here they were, a couple of hundred industry leaders nodding along as Rechelbacher urged them to get mud on their boots and dirt under their fingernails.
Somewhere, that diva of haute couture, Coco Chanel, was turning over in her grave.
Leaving the VW Vans Behind
Cosmetics companies love their creation myths. Though the industry has become huge, with recent estimates of global annual sales in excess of US$250 billion,2 many of makeup’s most recognized brands are rooted in the humble beginnings of their charismatic founders.
Of the major cosmetics firms, the largest is L’Oréal, which was started by Eugène Schueller in 1909 when he started mixing his own “safe hair dyes” and flogging them directly to Parisian hairdressers. The industry was developed in the United States shortly thereafter by hard-driving individuals whose names became synonymous with their products: Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein and Max Factor. Revlon was launched in 1932, when Charles Revson, his brother and a chemist named Charles Lachman pooled their meagre resources to create a new manufacturing process for nail enamel. Of its creator, the Estée Lauder company says that “Estée Lauder founded this company in 1946 armed with four products and an unshakeable belief: that every woman can be beautiful.”3 And famously, Coco Chanel overcame a brutally impoverished childhood and parlayed an early interest in hat design into one of the most enduring fashion houses and perfume brands in the world.
The same kind of entrepreneurial moxie was alive and well at the summit in New York City, with many representatives of the sustainable cosmetics companies I met feeling the wind at their backs and looking forward to taking on the industry’s big players. My friend Mia Davis, formerly the Organizing Director at the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and now Executive Vice-President of an up-and-coming sustainable cosmetics company called Beautycounter, epitomized this feisty spirit. “A lot of these larger companies were small start-ups once, right?” she said. “We’re a small, scrappy start-up right now, but we have our eye on the prize. We want to be really big and shaking up the industry in short order.” Davis’s career trajectory, from activist campaigner to corporate player, is itself an indication of the maturation of the sustainable cosmetics phenomenon. “I really enjoyed my years of working as an advocate for market change and improved legislative policies, and still feel very closely aligned with the campaign and the activist movement,” she said. “But I decided the time had come for me to play the same sport, but move to a different team.” In starting a new company with a team of social entrepreneurs, Davis told me she saw herself continuing to educate the public about toxic ingredients—but at the same time shaking up a cosmetics industry desperately in need of innovation.
Time and again in New York I met companies that, until the last few years, were small mom-and-pop operations, and now (much to their own surprise) are doing multimillion-dollar international sales. Typical of this granola-to-riches tale is Tampa-based Aubrey Organics.
Curt Valva, Aubrey Organic’s CEO, laughingly confirmed that his company’s founders “were a bunch of hippies selling products out of the back of their cars” and proudly rhymed off the firm’s long series of firsts in the cosmetics industry: first to list all of its ingredients (1967); first to formulate products with jojoba oil (1970); first to be certified as an organic processor (1984). The world is changing, Valva says. “Sustainable cosmetics are going mainstream, and that’s one of the biggest challenges for us as a company.” And he’s not alone in trying to reconcile his company’s growth with an ongoing commitment to making the world a better place.
Live (Toxin-) Free or Die
From his office in the woods of New Hampshire, Bill Whyte, the founder of W.S. Badger Company, told me the story of how his business went from obscurity to having the top-selling natural sunscreen in the United States and Canada. After getting out of the army and kicking around for a bit, Whyte finally settled down and started a family in the Granite State. He built his own house, gardened organically and was happily working as a carpenter.
“And then one winter,” Whyte said, in what I got the feeling was an oft-recounted tale, “I had really cracked fingers from working outside. It was awful. They would split and bleed, so I needed to do something. I was lying in bed one night with olive-oil-soaked socks covered in plastic bags. And Katie [Whyte’s wife] turned to me and said, ‘You know, that’s really pathetic. You can do better than that.’” The next morning, Bill went to the kitchen and started concocting various mixtures. He made a balm out of beeswax, olive oil and other ingredients, and it healed his fingers nicely. “So a lightbulb went on in my head,” he said. “I can sell this to carpenters and other people who work with their hands.” And thus was birthed Badger, with the sum total of the company being Whyte filling tins late into the night, listening to rock and roll, and delivering on weekends.
For a while after the launch of his Badger Balm, Whyte told me he resisted entreaties from people urging him to create new products. The makers of Tabasco sauce served as his model (“You gotta love a company that’s been doing the same good thing with a single product since 1870”). When he eventually succumbed to the siren call of product diversification, he quickly focused on sunscreens. “At the time, there weren’t any mineral sunscreens,” he told me. “Even the natural sunscreens were using chemicals as the active ingredient.” Always up for a challenge, and experimenting with mixtures in his kitchen, Whyte wondered whether he could make a sunscreen that would be healthful. While researching, he learned that non-toxic zinc oxide was used for the old lifeguard sunscreens.
Whyte’s timing was perfect. Little did he know that the Environmental Working Group (EWG), well known for evaluating toxic chemical levels in consumer products and in the bodies of Americans, was about to launch its first-ever “report card” on sunscreens, ranking them for effectiveness and safety.
Of all the consumer products that EWG could have focused on, there was a reason they put sunscreen in their crosshairs, according to Ken Cook, EWG’s perennially energetic president. “The federal government had not done anything to require significant efficacy or safety testing or anything for sunscreens. They had some guidelines that had been pending for, like, 30 years. It was ridiculous,” Cook grumbled when we spoke via telephone. “We’re not talking about mascara here or shampoo—something that’s designed to make you look nice or make you clean; we’re talking about [products that can prevent] skin cancers. And … companies were producing products that didn’t work and advertising them falsely as staying on all day and being waterproof. Then on top of all that, you get to the chemical issues.” As a result of their years of research, Cook and EWG had developed significant concerns about the chemicals in sunscreens leading to allergic reactions and immune system issues and—ironically—posing an increased risk of cancer. Fed up with government inertia, they decided to publish their own ranking of sunscreens according to rigorous safety criteria.
The public and media attention was huge.
Bill Whyte was out of the country at the time, so he found out over the phone that Badger was ranked at the top of the list of safe sunscreens. When the EWG analysis was featured on Good Morning America, Badger’s sales exploded overnight. The company’s inventory, which Whyte figured would last for a year, was gone in less than a week. And sales have been going through the roof ever since. But in the beginning, there was one small problem.
“Bill, I don’t know how to break this to you,” I told him, “but my family and I started to use your stuff around that time, and it made my kids look like Casper the Friendly Ghost. It was thick and white as hell,” I told him.
“It sure was!” Whyte laughed.
“And it was useless in water. They’d leave little zinc slicks behind them as they swam.”
“Oh, my gosh. Well, I think the formulation has much improved in the last five years.” I assured him that it had and that my family was fond enough of his product that we’d be taking some on our upcoming camping trip.
At the daycare where I drop my kids each morning in Toronto, there’s a big bin marked “SUNSCREEN.” With the summer of 2012 being so sunny and hot in the area, as it was throughout much of the continent, parents were urged to make sure that each of their kids had a full tube in the bin at all times so the teachers could apply it at will. As a measure of the growing popularity of mineral sunscreens, tubes of Badger and other great brands like Canada’s Green Beaver now have pride of place alongside smelly coconut-scented conventional products. And they’re gradually taking over.
Though I’ll grant you that it’s not the most scientific measurement in the world, I don’t think the greasy bin lies. Mineral sunscreens are on a roll.
As I learned at the summit, perhaps nowhere are natural cosmetics more popular than in Europe. Some of the largest companies offering green beauty products are based there. “Our company has been walking the walk since the 1920s,” said the baby-faced Jasper van Brakel, North American CEO of Swiss-based Weleda. “Using biodynamic ingredients, using organic ingredients. Never using chemicals. We manufacture holistic medicines as well as skin care, body care and baby care products. The world has caught up to what this company is doing. And we love it. It’s great.”
Now with US$450 million in global sales, Weleda was founded nearly one hundred years ago as a herbal medicine laboratory by that most prototypical of hipsters, Rudolf Steiner. Around this same time, the Austrian philosopher and social reformer was pioneering his Waldorf education system and a new spiritual movement known as “anthroposophy”: an attempt to meld science and mysticism. Van Brakel tells me that Weleda is still privately held by two foundations that exist to further Steiner’s worldview. “They’ve owned the company forever, they’re never going to sell it. And they allow us to continue to work out of a principle, rather than out of the primary objective to make money.”
I asked him if he felt territorial heading the North American operations of a company that, it could be argued, invented the whole concept of plant-based personal-care products but now had to watch some of the larger industry players crowding into the same space. “It’s a huge issue for us,” he replied, echoing Aubrey Organics’ Curt Valva’s concern. “There are many companies out there, some of them marketing themselves as organic and natural, that have ingredients in their products that are not great at all.… There are many different shades of green.” Increasingly, Weleda is advising large retailers that carry its products, like Target and CVS, to set up a special natural and organic section for products “that meet a certain standard.”
What that standard is and how to encapsulate it in a digestible way for consumers is, van Brakel admitted, the $64,000 question.
Some things are easy to label. “Sugar-free” is pretty self-explanatory. As are the increasingly common “peanut-free” or “gluten-free” tags sought by allergy sufferers. What do you do, however, when you have a beauty product and you want to advertise it as more “natural” or “organic”? How do you distinguish its complicated, unpronounceable ingredients as being healthier and safer than the equally byzantine ingredient lists on conventional beauty products? Not an easy task, especially considering the illogical and highly variable laws that exist in different countries. As just one example, some jurisdictions do not require chemicals like phthalates to be disclosed on ingredient lists, while others, like parabens or sulphates, must be shown.
Amarjit Sahota (head of the London-based research and consulting company Organic Monitor) identified this kind of perplexity in his market update report at the summit in New York. “There’s no question that consumer confusion is the biggest challenge,” he said and went on to point out that the rise of what he called “pseudo-naturals” (products whose claims of “green-ness” or “natural-ness” are dubious at best) was contributing to the problem. Ironically, the attempted fix for this phenomenon—the creation of labelling schemes to validate the benefits of truly green products—was now itself adding to the murk in the minds of consumers.
“Let me give you an example from the U.K.,” Sahota explained. “Let’s say you’re in an organic shop and you’re looking at personal-care products. You’ve got some products labelled ‘organic’ from the U.K., but then there are also a couple of different products from France. They’ve got two labels: one for ‘organic’ and one for ‘natural.’ Another brand from Germany has similar products, but they have different logos, and then you have two from the U.S. with two different logos again. So in this shop there are perhaps 20 brands with upwards of 8 different ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ labels.” The obvious effect, Sahota pointed out, is the creation of profound confusion. There are probably 50 separate “organic” and “natural” labels for healthy personal-care products.
“Ecoholic” column writer Adria Vasil has the difficult task of distinguishing between the relative merits of green products for her readers every week, and she agrees with Sahota that the terrain is terribly confusing. “It’s really hard to tell what label was created by a bunch of cynical marketers sitting around a table sipping on their lattes and what’s an actual genuine label that is administered by an impartial third party and stands for something good and useful.”
Thankfully, there would appear to be some simplification on the horizon. By late 2015, a brand-new European standard, “Cosmos,” will amalgamate and replace the pre-existing Ecocert, BDIH, Cosmébio (France), Soil Association (U.K.) and other national labels. Between Cosmos, the Natural Products Association certification and USDA Organic, most sustainable beauty products will be captured (see Table 2 for more details).
Brazilian Blowout Blow-Up
Yes, labels are good. They help consumers make more informed choices. But what happens when companies are prepared to, shall we say, economize on the truth?
In 2011, a small advocacy group based in Oakland, California, called the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) became suspicious that many manufacturers were being less than honest regarding the levels of organic ingredients in their products. California law is very clear on this score: In order to use the word “organic,” you need to ensure that your product contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients. The CEH launched a time-consuming but simple exercise: It collected dozens of allegedly “organic” products—shampoos and conditioners, lotions, deodorants, toothpastes, you name it—and examined the detailed ingredient lists on the labels. Many of the lists showed few or no organic ingredients. And since ingredients are listed in order of predominance, from major to minor, the CEH calculated that each of the products contained far less than 70 percent organics. Frustrated with what they considered a clear flouting of the law, the CEH sued. The goal: to bring the companies into compliance with California law—either by having them remove their improper organic claims or by ensuring that they increased the proportion of organic ingredients in their products.
“We want to encourage organics, plain and simple,” says Michael Green, Executive Director of CEH. “You can’t successfully encourage organics if people don’t believe that things are what they say they are on the label. Because who is going to go out of their way to buy this stuff unless there’s some truth in advertising?” The lawsuit had a quick effect, Green said proudly. “The vast majority of the companies have changed what they were doing. Most of them took the word ‘organic’ off the label of the products that we challenged them on, and some of them then created another line of products that they could put that label on.” For now, CEH’s lawsuit has helped reinforce the fact that the word “organic” has value and a legal meaning and can’t be used simply to hoodwink consumers. Unfortunately, another recent, high-profile example of labelling gone amok hasn’t ended on nearly as positive a note.
In September 2010, Jennifer Arce, an experienced hairdresser based near San Diego, decided to try a new hair-straightening product manufactured by GIB LLC, commonly known as Brazilian Blowout. “I specifically chose Brazilian Blowout because it was advertised as the only hair-straightening treatment that improved the health of the hair, caused no damage, had no harsh chemicals and, most importantly, was formaldehyde free.” To get the hang of the product so that she could eventually use it on her clients, Arce arranged for her sister, also a co-worker, to do a Brazilian Blowout on her.
Arce remembers the exact day, the exact moment, because her life hasn’t been the same since.
“Within minutes of her applying it to my hair, my eyes were burning, my throat was burning, my lungs were burning, and I was having a hard time breathing. My symptoms were escalating, and my sister was having all the same issues.” Arce told me that even when the two women moved outside to complete the procedure in the fresh air, they continued to feel sick. That night, when she went home, she was lethargic and could barely swallow, and she developed a terrible migraine. Her puzzled doctor attributed her ongoing problems to possible chemical poisoning. Nearly two years later, she still can’t believe what has happened to her. “In the days following the treatment, I was having a hard time doing little, simple, everyday tasks,” she said. “I couldn’t turn on a stove or an oven because the gas fumes coming out would make me sick. I couldn’t use any cleaning products. I couldn’t pump gas. I couldn’t use hairspray on myself or on my clients—just being at work around all these chemicals was a struggle.”
The penny finally dropped for Arce when she realized that some of her co-workers were getting sick too. “Many of them had been on and off antibiotics for months after exposure to the Brazilian Blowout chemicals, and we all had the same symptoms.” She and her sister started researching and discovered that an increasing number of people were recording similar complaints online. Moved to action, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began testing the product—including in Arce’s salon—and discovered that far from being formaldehyde free, Brazilian Blowout contained up to 10 percent of this volatile, cancer-causing agent.4
With GIB, the makers of the products, protesting all the while that they were safe, the State of California sued. Arce was one of the hairdressers involved in the action. While the public debate raged and the lawyers were on the case, she was back at work, trying to make a living, having been forced to move salons when her previous boss refused to ban Brazilian Blowouts in the shop. The allure of the product was too much. “Oh, yeah,” Arce said when I asked if the thing worked. “My hair never looked so good after using it. It was beautiful, shiny, you barely had to dry it. Some of the clients who do know it contains the chemical don’t care, because it’s making their hair so beautiful. And some of them will say, ‘Beauty costs!’”
Arce now works at a new salon that refuses to do Brazilian Blowouts, but she and her co-workers have already been devastated by the experience in a number of ways. “A lot of us are on inhalers now. All of the diagnostic testing, sinus X-rays, chest X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, nose probes, breathing tests, EKGs—we’ve all taken many weeks off of work because we’ve been so ill from our exposure to these products.” Arce suspects that some of her colleagues will be leaving the business entirely.
After appearing on the Today show and other media, telling the story of her harrowing experience, Arce now gets letters from hairdressers across the country with similar heart-breaking tales. One of the things they commiserate about is the incredible ending to the story. Even though GIB LLC was forced to pay a settlement of $600,000 to the State of California and “cease deceptive advertising that describes two of its popular products as formaldehyde-free and safe,” Brazilian Blowout is still on sale.5 While GIB is now obliged to identify formaldehyde in its labelling and instructions, the U.S. government lacks the power to force a product off the shelf if an obstreperous company is unwilling to do so voluntarily. Though it’s now banned in some countries,6 in the U.S., Brazilian Blowout has prevailed over its detractors and is still being used today in salons from coast to coast.
If you wanted one of the starkest examples of the abject failure of the U.S. regulatory system to ensure the safety of personal-care products, Brazilian Blowout would surely be it. But the Brazilian Blowout case is not an isolated one, and this is perhaps not surprising, since the U.S. law allegedly protecting Americans from being poisoned by their bathroom products dates back to 1938—well before the creation of many modern synthetic chemicals.
When I caught up with Lisa Archer, the National Coordinator of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, I asked her how bad the current situation actually was. Fifteen minutes later, she’d rattled off a list of worrisome stories and statistics as long as my arm. “There are carcinogens in baby shampoo as well as phthalates and other problematic chemicals. Another example is mercury in skin-lightening creams, and there have actually been some cases of mercury poisoning from the use of these products.”
In addition to lacking the legal authority to require recalls of damaging products, current U.S. (and Canadian) law allows companies to put dozens of secret ingredients in their products without disclosing them on the label. As long as a manufacturer can make the case that a particular synthetic chemical is a component of their fragrance formulation, they don’t have to list it on their packaging. Thus, you’ll never see the word “phthalates” on a product. In a recent Canadian study, Environmental Defence tested personal-care products and discovered, on average, 14 secret ingredients per product that were—quite legally—not disclosed on the ingredient lists.7 The other reason that cosmetics safety is a concern in the U.S. is that the capacity of the U.S. government to oversee the industry is “virtually nonexistent and completely ineffective” according to Archer. “In a nutshell, FDA [the U.S. Food and Drug Administration] is pathetically understaffed and underfunded. We’re talking about a budget of about $10–12 million per year and roughly 10 full-time staff to govern a $60 billion cosmetics industry. There’s no way, given their current capacity and their current powers, that they could actually protect the public and ensure that cosmetics are safe.”
In response to the concerns voiced by her organization and others, Archer was pleased that the U.S. Congress recently scheduled its first hearing on cosmetics safety in over 30 years. In addition, a variety of Democratic representatives introduced a bill (the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011), which would, if passed, result in a wholesale modernization of cosmetics regulation in the United States. But though there have been some victories at the state level (such as the California Safe Cosmetics Act that led to the prosecution of Brazilian Blowout), in the estimation of Ken Cook from the EWG, prospects of significant further statutory gains in the United States are “very grim, unfortunately.”
Despite this, Archer and Cook are surprisingly upbeat regarding the pace of change in the United States. “There’s a sort of a ‘girlcott’ going on, versus boycott,” she told me. “Instead of opposing certain products, women are supporting companies who are more honest and transparent and using safer ingredients. And it’s not just with cosmetics—you see it with BPA in baby bottles, you see organic food becoming more mainstream and things like that. And that’s what I think is exciting. Even if the policy change is going to take a long time to happen, people are waking up to this issue. That market shift is going to continue to happen, driven by those conscious moms, in particular, who are changing their habits.”8
Of Mennonites and Nail Salon Workers
It’s an indicator of how far things have come that phthalates, surely the most unpronounceable word ever, have become such a poster child for consumer concern. Though there are many toxic chemicals that informed consumers are now on the lookout for on the labels of their beauty products—including sodium lauryl sulphate, siloxanes and Quaternium-15—phthalates are top of the list.
If you want to talk phthalates, the go-to expert is, without a doubt, Dr. Shanna Swan from Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Though I had interviewed her about the hormone-disrupting effects of phthalates for Slow Death by Rubber Duck, I had never actually met her. So when I sat down with this world-leading scientist amongst the dog walkers and pigeons on a sunny day in Madison Square Park, the first question I asked was whether we had learned much more about phthalates over the past five years.
“You know, it really depends on which phthalate you’re talking about,” she said. “Phthalates are a family of chemicals, and each one has a different toxicity, a different use, a different route of exposure.”
She proceeded to run down her latest analyses, and the first study she mentioned involved some unique test subjects. “We did some testing recently of phthalates in the urine of Old Order Mennonites—10 pregnant women,” she told me. “They had much lower levels of phthalates, BPA and triclosan in their bodies than the average American. One of the main reasons for this, we think, is that they don’t use cosmetics. One woman had used hairspray, and she was the only one who had detectable levels of MEP [the breakdown product of DEP, a type of phthalate common in personal-care products].”9 Another factor that Swan and her co-authors suspect accounted for the low levels in the volunteers was their general avoidance of cars and trucks. Phthalate levels in the interior air of cars can be elevated because of off-gassing from the upholstery, and this is particularly pronounced on warm days.10 “Usually, Mennonites get around in horse-drawn buggies, but some of the women reported recently riding in a car or truck. We saw more MEHP [the breakdown product of the phthalate DEHP] in their urine.” The third factor that Swan identified was the Mennonite habit of eating unprocessed foods, which they’d often grown themselves. Recent studies have shown markedly lower levels of BPA and some phthalates like MEHP when unprocessed food is consumed.11
“It’s always DEHP that predominates in food. So why is that? Well, now I’m talking speculatively, but if you take a baby in the intensive care unit and feed it through a tube, you will measure DEHP in its urine. No question. A lot of it. Because the warm liquid pulls the DEHP out of the plastic in the feeding tube. I think this is probably what’s happening with milk. Milking machines use a lot of plastic tubing. The DEHP from the plastic ends up in milk and cheese. It’s fat soluble, so it accumulates in fatty foods. And so when people say, ‘What can I do?’ I say eat organic, unprocessed, fresh food. Your levels of DEHP will come down.”
Another study that Swan mentioned—really the flip side of the Mennonite coin—is a startling look at phthalate levels in nail salon workers.12 The levels of MBP [the breakdown product of the phthalate DBP] were significantly higher in manicurists after their work shifts. The use of gloves alleviated this problem, pointing to the nail products as the source of MBP. “Nail polish is bad, but perfume is the worst,” said Swan, referring to recent studies demonstrating more uptake of phthalates from perfume than from any other personal-care product.13 In the study, women who used perfume had three times the level of MEP in their urine as women who didn’t wear perfume.
Given that phthalates surround us every day, virtually every human on the planet has the stuff coursing through their veins.14 And to further compound the creepiness, elevated phthalate levels have been found in breast milk and umbilical cord blood, meaning that moms aren’t just polluting themselves; they’re passing their phthalate pollution on to their foetuses and nursing babies.
This is a problem because phthalates are hormone-disrupting chemicals. Once in our bodies, they are mistaken for estrogen and can create all the changes that estrogen achieves. Shanna Swan has long researched this phenomenon, including early publications about the possible role of phthalates in creating genital malformations of little boys.15 A more recent study hints at neurobehavioural change resulting from exposure to phthalates.16
Hormones are like the traffic cops of our bodies. They tell everything—all critical processes—to “Stop,” “Go” or “Slow Down.” No wonder hormone mimickers like phthalates have such dramatic effects. (Tables 3 and 4 give a full rundown on what the most recent science is telling us about where we pick phthalates up in our daily lives and how they affect our bodies.)
And when it comes to beauty products, phthalates are only the tip of a diverse and complicated toxic iceberg.
Dangers of Deodorants (and Antiperspirants)
From the mountain of evidence linking phthalates to human health concerns, I turned next to another chemical that many alert consumers are now trying to avoid: parabens. Hormonally active chemicals that, like phthalates, mimic estrogen in the human body, parabens are added to countless consumer products—foods, pharmaceuticals and beauty products including antiperspirants and deodorants—as a preservative. Given their widespread use, it’s not surprising that they’re now found in the bodies of most people, including 95 percent of the American population.17 Though parabens have not been scientifically scrutinized nearly as much as phthalates have, the examination of this preservative and its effects inside the human body is beginning to intensify. If there is one researcher in the world who can claim to have brought parabens into the public eye, it’s Dr. Philippa Darbre of the University of Reading in England. In a widely cited 2004 study, Dr. Darbre and her colleagues found parabens in human breast tissue.18 “There was a bit of a furor,” Darbre told me over the phone from her laboratory. “Up to that point, it had been assumed that parabens, once they entered the human body, would be broken down by the liver. But something different altogether happens when they’re applied directly to the skin: The parabens bypass the liver and remain intact.”19
Darbre told me she was struck by the way that breast cancers often develop. “Between 50 and 60 percent of breast cancers start in the upper-outer quadrant of the breast, near the armpit.” To explain why this is completely disproportionate and striking, she gave me a crash course in breast anatomy. “The breast is divided into seven regions: four quadrants, a central region, a nipple area and an axillary (or armpit) region. So if breast cancer started equally across all areas of the breast, we would expect to see less than 20 percent of cancers originating in each of those regions. But we don’t, and 50 to 60 percent are up there in the upper-outer quadrant. Why? Is it because of all the chemicals being applied to that region?” This question has driven her to research the possible link between underarm products and breast cancer for over 15 years.
To further her 2004 study, Darbre continued to look for parabens in sample breast tissue from radical mastectomies. This time she used an even larger sample, and her suspicions were confirmed.20 “Not only did we repeat our 2004 results, but we actually found even fourfold higher paraben levels in these samples.” More interesting (and worrisome) in terms of implications for human health was the significant difference in levels of one paraben chemical in different parts of the breast. “Propyl paraben did seem to have a gradient, with more found in the axilla region than in the inner regions, which you might expect is coming from the underarm.”
Do parabens cause breast cancer? As any cautious scientist would do, Darbre is quick to put her experimental results in context. “The fact that they’re in the breast doesn’t mean that there’s necessarily a relationship with breast cancer. It’s the first question. If they’re not getting into the breast, then they can’t have any effect on breast cancer.” But even if they don’t cause cancer, there may be other effects. Although cancer is the main concern, it actually represents only about 5 percent of clinical abnormalities of the human breast, with benign conditions such as breast cysts being the most common.
In response to the many women writing to her and complaining about painful breast cysts, Darbre has started looking into aluminum levels in breasts.21 Here again she has found strong evidence linking antiperspirant use with disease. Aluminum is a common component of antiperspirants because it helps keep sweat off the wearer’s skin by blocking sweat ducts. Breast cysts also occur when sweat ducts don’t drain properly. Darbre has found strong evidence that, like parabens, aluminum levels are highest in the part of the breast near the armpit—also where a disproportionate amount of breast cysts are found—and that aluminum levels are higher in the fluid of breast cysts than in other parts of the body. Pretty convincing stuff.
What’s the response of the chemical industry to Darbre’s work? Although the presence of parabens and aluminum in breast tissue (specifically, in the part of the breast most likely to manifest disease) is now undeniable, the industry says that the levels of parabens are too minute to matter.22 Even on this question, Darbre has tried to respond directly with further experimentation. Though manufacturers defend their particular parabens, it’s not the fact that there is one type of paraben in breast tissue that’s the problem, Darbe maintains; it’s the fact that there are many. Parabens are a family of chemicals, and it’s the effect of this potentially toxic and potent mixture that’s the worry. In her most recent study, she took various parabens at the same concentrations she has measured in the human body and demonstrated that, in combination, they have an effect. “To my knowledge,” she told me, “this is the first science suggesting that parabens have the capability of turning a normal breast cell into a transformed breast cell.”23 Transformed cells cannot be controlled by the body’s normal processes and may be indicative of progression to a cancerous state. Scientists are producing a body of data leading to some valid concerns about parabens. But on the flip side, where is the data supporting claims that parabens are safe? As Darbre put it: “Where are the data showing that if you put parabens into all these things that get into people at all levels … that there are no effects? There aren’t any such data. And my interpretation is that the current data imbalance is making companies nervous. Unfortunately, we are exposed to many chemicals each day that mimic estrogen and that have complementary action.”24
In her own life, Darbre uses as few of these products as possible. And as Bruce illustrates in Chapter 4, there is growing evidence that sweating is actually an important mechanism of the body’s detox system: The more you sweat, the more toxic chemicals you get rid of. Our over-air-conditioned, sweat-averse society’s antiperspirant habit reduces our body’s ability to clean itself while slathering on nasty pollutants. A double toxic whammy.
“A Whole New Ballgame”
I will confess that, in university, when my hipster friends were avoiding deodorant and rubbing crystals under their arms, I … was not. I value personal hygiene and a relative lack of stench from my fellow humans. Until I started writing this chapter, I still clung to my not infrequent use of Mitchum antiperspirant. Why? It works. As my grandmother always used to say, “Horses sweat, men perspire and women glow.” I was going one further by trying not to perspire at all. With Toronto being 40 degrees Celsius for many days during the summer I was doing interviews and writing this book, I knew it would be hard to be taken seriously if I was perspiring through my shirt.
But there are now better ways to deal with the problem. Quite simply, sustainable cosmetics are more popular because products have become much better.
Just how much better was sketched out for me by Judi Beerling, Organic Monitor’s Technical Research Manager. After working for over 30 years in the conventional cosmetics industry, Judi decided that the formulation of conventional cosmetics had become “a bit stagnant, with everybody doing the same sorts of things over and over.” She was enticed to begin concocting formulations for sustainable cosmetics companies because of the intellectual challenge. She told me she now works out of a special lab she built for herself in her back garden.
When it comes to sustainable cosmetics, she told me during a coffee break at the New York Sustainable Cosmetics Summit, “it’s a whole new ballgame.” Five years ago, Beerling figured, you could really make only basic products. “Now you can make very elegant products that you would be hard pressed to distinguish from conventional cosmetics. Whether you can make them at the same cost, of course, is not so easy.” As a rough approximation, Judi estimated that “85 to 90 percent of the ingredients and techniques [needed] to make sustainable cosmetics are now available, and this is increasing literally on a weekly basis. Now the challenge is to figure out how to combine them to get the best effect and to make the best cosmetics we can.”
Hands down, the number one remaining challenge for formulating sustainable cosmetics, according to a number of people I interviewed at the summit, is the creation of effective preservatives to replace parabens. Curt Valva explained the problem succinctly: “Many of our products are water based. Things with high water content have to be preserved because as soon as you introduce water to something, bacterial growth starts immediately. You need something to either keep the bacteria from growing at its normal level, like we would have in drinking water, or kill it completely. The problem is those things that kill bacteria are also really not good for the human body. They’re designed to kill cells—that’s what they do.” It’s particularly important, Valva told me, to keep products like mascara, which are applied near the eye, clean and totally free from mould, fungus and bacteria.
Such is the interest in non-toxic preservatives that Judi Beerling led a summit workshop on Saturday morning dedicated entirely to this topic. It’s not just the question of whether new technologies are available, but also whether they are cost effective. “You’re often looking at double the cost. Sometimes triple. If you’ve got really high buying power, say you’re a large multinational, you’d likely be able to get that down. It also depends on what you’re trying to make: Some things are easier than others.”
Though they were better looking and rather better dressed, the people in Beerling’s busy Saturday morning workshop reminded me of those witches from Macbeth. All the participants formulated cosmetics as a profession, and as they traded knowledge about their favourite obscure plant ingredients, the witches’ “Eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog” incantation kept coming to my mind. But, of course, the information exchange at the workshop was designed to result in good and not harm. Even better, the benevolent discussion was fascinating. I found out that rather than parabens, natural and organic products have traditionally contained natural preservatives like grapefruit seed extract, though new materials and technologies are gaining acceptance. Beerling spent considerable time at her workshop outlining these so-called hurdle technologies, which involve the intelligent combination of different preservation factors to create a hostile environment for bacteria right in the product itself. The goal is to block growth of microorganisms by putting successive impediments in their path—each diminishing the population until none remain. Some of these approaches include using materials that make formulations ever so slightly more acidic or adding emollients with properties that can disrupt the membranes of bacterial cells. Other natural cosmetics are boosting their preservative systems through the use of antioxidants or by adding tiny amounts of spice extracts or alcohol. It turns out that one of the best—and simplest—ways to reduce the need for high levels of preservatives is to improve packaging. Smaller packaging helps to reduce or remove contamination issues. Airless dispensers or pumps can dramatically cut bacterial growth—unlike the huge, goopy Oil of Olay wide-neck skin-cream jar that sat on my grandmother’s bathroom counter throughout my childhood.
Not that long ago, the cosmetic industry’s knee-jerk solution to the problems of preserving the lipstick, shampoo and shaving gel in your bathroom was always the same: “Add more parabens! more parabens!” Now, through the leadership of innovative chemists like Judi Beerling, a larger number of less toxic options is now available in the manufacturer’s toolkit. Just how many options became obvious to me when, as a way of concluding her Saturday workshop, Judi started flashing up ingredient labels from real-life natural cosmetics and invited the crowd to start playing the game “Spot That Preservative” by yelling out the answer. As I left the workshop to catch my plane, the cries of “honeysuckle extract,” “tocopherol” and “thyme oil” followed me down the hall.
Beerling regards the recent success of sustainable cosmetics as something of a personal vindication. “I remember in 1978, my first business trip to the U.S. as a young chemist, I was put in front of a very senior VP at a multinational. He put me on the spot and said, ‘So what’s the next big trend then?’” She chuckled. “And I said, well I think natural is where things are going to go. And he said, ‘Oh we’ve done that, haven’t we? We’ve had all the green apple shampoos.’ Ha! Who was right then?”
And Now, the Experiment
After doing a ton of research into the alleged merits of green personal-care products, I decided that some more direct testing of our own was in order. The idea was pretty simple. I asked for volunteers: Ray Civello of Aveda and Jessa Blades, one of Glamour magazine’s 70 eco-heroes and the TreeHugger website’s Best Green Makeup Artist for 2011, were up to the challenge. We wanted to look at the day-to-day differences in our participants’ phthalate and paraben levels as they made the switch from using conventional chemical-laden, personal-care products to products that claimed to be greener and, notionally, safer.25 The hitch with Ray and Jessa is that they’d long ago made the switch to natural products: They were already big believers in the notion that the first step in detoxing is to avoid harmful toxins. For the purpose of our experiment, we asked them to go back—just for a day.
Based on consultation with experts like Dr. Shanna Swan, we designed our protocol as follows.
On Day One, our participants had to undergo a 24-hour “washout” phase, which really just meant avoiding the use of any cosmetics or personal-care products as much as possible. The logic behind this washout is that chemicals like phthalates and parabens are excreted in the urine, usually within 6 to 12 hours of application/ingestion/inhalation.
After 24 hours of cosmetics-free living, our participants gave their first urine samples on Day Two at 8 a.m. That sample was used to establish their body baseline levels for the phthalates and parabens we were examining. Immediately following the first urine collection, Civello and Blades each did a one-time application of the conventional products we had sent them.26 With the help of a study on chemicals in consumer products from the Silent Spring Institute27 and the EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics database,28 we selected products that we were pretty sure contained phthalates and parabens aplenty.
Another urine collection was done at both the four-hour (noon) and the six-hour (2 p.m.) post-application marks, for a total of three urine samples from each for the first phase of the experiment. Following the 2 p.m. collection, we again asked our volunteers to refrain from using any more cosmetics for the duration of the second washout, which would end at 8 a.m. on Day Four. The second phase of the experiment played out the same as the first, with urine collections at 8 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. The only difference was that in this phase, Ray and Jessa would be applying the natural products listed in the notes for this chapter after their 8 a.m. sample.
So there you have it. After a total of 8 days, 12 samples and over 50 cosmetic products (oh, and a somewhat sleepless night as I worried about the impact Hurricane Sandy would have on New York City and subsequently the fate of Blades’s urine in her Brooklyn freezer), the urine was packed up and sent off to a lab in British Columbia to be analyzed for various phthalates and parabens.29
Our participants were good sports about the whole thing. When I spoke to Civello as he was doing the first washout, he told me he was interested to see if his colleagues would notice: “I’ve smelled the same way for 25 years. I have a distinctive aroma that people know me by. People usually say to me, ‘Man, you smell good!’” The day he walked down his office hallway stinking of Axe body spray rather than Aveda’s distinctive rosemary mint, he did indeed turn some heads.
“We’re really confused as to what clean smells like,” Blades quipped over the phone, having a hard time adjusting to her newfound synthetic scent. Blades doesn’t normally wear strong perfumes, as she’s wary of their undisclosed ingredients. But as a professional makeup artist, she concedes that there’s no question that long-wear conventional products work. “If you put plastic into a product, it’ll stay on. Put some of this lipstick on the back of my hand and it stays there. But women don’t have to wear waterproof mascara every day. They have to wear mascara that doesn’t burn their eyes and that doesn’t make their eyelashes fall out.”
The results of our experiment were very convincing (check out Figure 4 for the story in a nutshell).
Blades’s initial level of mono-ethyl phthalate (MEP) went from a low of 6.09 ng/mL to a high of 346 ng/mL then back down to 12.6 ng/mL. Her methyl paraben levels started at 5.17ng/mL, went all the way up to 805 ng/mL and then dropped to 7.69 ng/mL. Civello’s levels followed the same pattern: His base MEP level was 143 ng/mL, it peaked at 786 ng/mL and fell to 99.3 ng/mL, and his methyl paraben went from a low of 2.45 ng/mL to 206 ng/mL and then dropped back to 4.29 ng/mL. The levels of phthalates and parabens we found in our study match other data in scientific literature looking at levels of these chemicals after topical application of cosmetics.30
While both Jessa’s and Ray’s phthalate and paraben levels spiked dramatically after their use of the conventional cosmetics, they declined dramatically during the subsequent washout phase of the experiment. Significantly, phthalate and paraben levels continued to fall even after application of the green personal-care products. The results from this experiment certainly support Blades’s point. Women and men don’t have to wear this stuff every day. Nor do they have to wear sackcloth and go without cosmetics entirely to avoid synthetic chemicals. The green products used by Blades and Civello are wonderfully effective. And they don’t leave a toxic residue in the body.
Here’s a bonus: Not only are organic and natural personal-care products better for you personally (as our experiment convincingly demonstrates); it also turns out that they’re better for the earth.
In the “good old days,” when all cosmetics companies made their products with petrochemical derivatives, you could just phone up your ingredient suppliers and get them to cook you up some new toxic goo in their lab. Easy. Predictable. And fast. With the rise of natural cosmetics, however, an increasing number of companies are on the hunt for previously obscure plant-based ingredients. And a new and fascinating symbiotic relationship has emerged between the producers of these plants and the companies they serve.
I was first tipped off to this phenomenon during the keynote that Horst Rechelbacher delivered at the Sustainable Cosmetics Summit. At one point he made a crack about jojoba oil. “And those of you who use jojoba oil know how hard that’s been the last few years.” I looked around, puzzled, as knowing looks and rueful chuckles swept the crowd. I later found out that prices of jojoba oil had been volatile of late, in one year doubling or more, causing much angst for companies like the ones assembled. The intensifying scramble to source reliable supplies of plant-based ingredients emerged as a preoccupation with a number of people I spoke with.
Curt Valva of Aubrey Organics told me that there had recently been a shortage of blue chamomile oil. “It comes from Morocco,” he said. “The crop was just devastated, we got very little and we use a lot of that particular ingredient. Our price doubled. And when a raw ingredient that is a mainstay of your product line shoots up in price like that, it becomes very, very difficult, let me tell you!”
Weleda’s Jasper van Brakel was worried about organic pomegranate seed oil. “We use a lot of pomegranate seed oil from Turkey. We press the seed and use that in face-care products. Apparently, it’s the best of the best—antioxidants, vitamins—so if that harvest fails because there’s a drought or something, we’re screwed.”
Many natural cosmetics companies prominently mention their partnerships with traditional communities as tangible indicators of their authenticity and commitment to fair trade and sustainability. Aveda has created a whole sub-brand, “Soil to Bottle,” around its tracing of raw ingredients back to their farm or harvesting co-op of origin. According to the Aveda website, the company’s purchasing has resulted in improved standards of living for subsistence Indian farmers (turmeric), Australian Aborigines (wild sandalwood oil) and the Yawanawa people of Brazil (urukum seeds).
One of the ingredients most important to Bill Whyte at Badger is organic olive oil. They use hundreds of litres of the stuff every year, which they buy from a single little company—Soler Romero—in Andalusia’s Jaén province in southern Spain. I spent some time chatting on the phone with Mónica Marín, the Export Manager for Soler Romero, from her office in the middle of the farm’s six-hundred-hectare organic orchard. With her hundred-year-old trees crowding outside her window, Marín brought me up to speed on the global olive oil industry.
“I bet you thought that most olive oil comes from Italy, right?” she asked, the frustrated tone in her voice making clear that “Italy” was most definitely the wrong answer. “Not true! Spain is the biggest producer of olive oil in the world. We produce three times what Italy does. But they’ve got the brand!” The reason that I couldn’t ever recall seeing “Extra Virgin Spanish Olive Oil” in the store became clear after Marín explained that Italy actually imported massive quantities of olive oil from other countries, mixed them together, then resold it as Italian product. Until recently, this had been the fate of the majority of Soler Romero’s crop. In the same family since the 1850s, Soler Romero had always sold its olive oil in bulk to the local co-op. “Then 10 years ago,” Marín explained, “the family decided to change the business. We received organic certification and built our own olive mill.” The newly rebranded organic product soon came to the attention of Bill Whyte back in New Hampshire.
As Badger’s business has grown, so have its orders from Soler Romero. Marín estimated that Badger’s orders have increased by 40 percent over the past few years. Though the bulk of her oil is still sold for human consumption, the component taken by Badger for cosmetics is increasingly important. From the point of view of Soler Romero’s owners (the seventh generation of their family to try to make a go of it in the highly competitive international olive oil business), every litre of product they are able to sell to Badger is a litre they don’t have to offload, at substantially lower prices, to the bulk Italian market at the end of the season.
Another businesswoman who is grateful for the growth of the natural cosmetics market is Eugenia Akuete, President of the Global Shea Alliance. On the phone from Accra, Ghana, where she owns a shea butter–producing company, Akuete is bullish on the growth of her industry. “Shea nuts are harvested from across 21 sub-Saharan African countries,” she told me. “We’re a big, a growing industry. Every year, an estimated 1 million tons of shea nuts are harvested by 16 million women.” This latter figure was so astonishing, I asked Akuete to repeat it. She confirmed that, yes, I’d heard her right. Sixteen million African women depend on income from harvesting shea nuts every year. The Global Shea Alliance was created in 2010 to bring together various stakeholders to build capacity in the industry.
Shea nuts are one of those perfect natural creations that have the power to make even the most hardened non-believer consider the possibility of a divine plan. If you boil them up, you can make a highly nutritious butter that has been an important food source for centuries. Rubbed on the skin, the vitamin E–rich oil is a useful natural moisturizer. Best of all, the nuts are produced by slow-growing, hardy trees throughout the arid plains of mid-Africa in an area where agriculture is tough slogging at the best of times. The size of a large plum, the fruit ripens at an opportune season of the year when other food supplies are at their lowest ebb. The thin pulp is tart but edible, and the large nut inside contains a veritable cornucopia of nutritious oils and fats. Much of the annual harvest is consumed by millions of households locally, but it’s now also a valuable export commodity: as an ingredient in foods such as chocolate (where it is often used as a substitute for cocoa butter) and, increasingly, as a base for natural cosmetics.
In 1994, 50,000 tons of shea nuts were exported from West Africa. By 2012, that number had increased fivefold. From a standing start in the mid-1990s, about 24,000 tons of shea nuts are exported for cosmetics each year, a number that continues to increase rapidly.31 I asked Eugenia Akuete whether, given that it’s a semiwild crop and supplies are presumably limited, there is further room to grow the shea harvest. “Yes!” she replied. “Every year, an estimated 1 million tons of shea nuts are harvested. And we think there’s an additional 1 million tons that are not used and left to rot.”
Akuete told me a funny story about trying to get her company’s shipment of shea butter through the American border in the 1990s. “Nobody knew what the product was,” she said. The process took a while. More recently, at the same airport, Akuete was trying to get a shipment delivered, and before she could answer any questions, another border agent overheard the conversation. “You don’t know what shea is?!” they asked incredulously, before taking it upon themselves to educate their colleague about the miracle butter’s many virtues.
With fans like that, it’s clear this grassroots industry is only getting started.
The New Normal
When I started at the University of Guelph in 1987, I arrived on campus determined to delve deeply into academic lefty culture. Guelph, still one of my favourite towns, made this easy. “The Royal City,” as it’s known, has long been an island of latter-day hippies adrift in suburban southern Ontario. Parties at the time would often end with “Rise Up,” the gay rights anthem by Toronto’s Parachute Club, or Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning.” We rocked out at U2’s Joshua Tree tour with socially conscious songs like “Bullet the Blue Sky.” I got arrested at peace and environmental demonstrations, grew my hair and sideburns really long and determined that I should buy more organic food and products. At the time, the only place in town to purchase the requisite organic granola was at the food co-op. This was a dank, subterranean room—think Rome, Christians and Catacombs—for which you needed to pick up a special key at the business upstairs. Co-op members were required to volunteer to staff the place one night a month: Work the cash register for other members doing their shopping, sweep up and clean up the oozy dribbles on the floor from the bulk soap and laundry detergent dispensers. It was a lonely gig. I can’t remember ever meeting another living soul during my shifts.
My point in taking you on this stroll down my memory lane is twofold. First, in the space of a short (I mean, 1987 wasn’t that long ago, right?) period of time, all things organic and natural—cosmetics, food, cleaning products—have become much more available. All my neighbours in my downtown Toronto neighbourhood and I can now get many of the goods we need from the substantial organic and natural section of our local Loblaws—one of the 1,400 supermarkets run by Canada’s largest food retailer.
Secondly, though it wasn’t the Summer of Love by any means, back in 1987 there was still a tight correlation between how you looked (long hair and tie dye), how you cooked (did anybody really like the brown rice in that damn Enchanted Broccoli Forest?), what you thought (Nicaragua’s Sandinistas were the cat’s meow) and even how you smelled (patchouli still turns me on). Today? Not so much.
“The appeal of green cosmetics is super broad,” says Adria Vasil. “I get questions from yummy mummies made up after yoga, from businesswomen, from guys in suits—it’s definitely changed. I think we’ve still got a little further to go to penetrate the market when it comes to the beauty bunnies who are using the most cosmetics who really don’t think the options are out there, but I’m here to tell them that yeah, those products are out there. If you want that vixen red lip and that smoky eye, no problem.”
Is anything standing in the way of increased growth of sustainable cosmetics? No. In fact, it’s quickly becoming the new normal. Within a few short years, most personal-care products will look a lot more natural. Are people changing everything overnight? Of course not. Florida-based pollster Linda Gilbert’s research has shown that people usually change up their brands in a gradual way. “In our discussions with consumers, we find that perhaps counterintuitively, conventional products and green products will co-exist in the bathroom cabinet,” she told me. “It’s the same phenomenon that we observed 20 years ago when we realized that just because someone buys organic cereal doesn’t mean they’ll buy organic milk. People really do pick and choose, and it’s always this balancing act between brand trust, performance and considerations related to health and environment. So they may use Tom’s of Maine toothpaste but also gargle with Listerine.”
Bottom line? Gilbert has identified “three things that consumers tell us are getting in the way of buying more organic and natural products.” The first is availability. The second is price. And the third is effectiveness or practicality.
As I hope has been obvious from reading this chapter, all three of these obstacles are well on the way to being removed. You no longer need to be an Old Order Mennonite to avoid phthalates and parabens.
Copyright © 2013 by Bruce Lourie and Rick Smith