In recent months, I find my messages on sustainability to be shifting. That shift is really more of a focus as I have grown in my understanding of a greater issue we face today which makes conservation and environmentalism more relevant to the average American. And this shift is more than a trend or even a mega-trend. It is a movement. A conscious uncovering of a truth which corporations and businesses big and small are beginning to comprehend as a further retooling of all we make and all we do in the world today.
William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their 2002 manifesto Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things strengthened a now popular dialogue on the need for green chemistry. This is an understanding that while technology and innovation on the planet has been remarkable, if not sheer genius, over the past 60 years since the second World War. However, we have forgotten a very important stakeholder in the name of development and the quest to make the human life easier and more convenient. That stakeholder is humanity. Yes, as sustainability champions we speak about the environment and the planet quite often. And ultimately environmentalist believe that we, humans, are a subset of nature, not a the other way around. However, for the sake of this audience, I will move us aside from the conversation of conscious capitalism as a means to save the earth and move to something much I hope is more relevant to the hearts of the readers. Conscious Capitalism as a means to save mankind.
Now, as a blogger for Fast Company Magazine, perhaps I would want to keep those pie in the sky aspirations of global salvation to myself, however, I believe more and more of the American public, let alone our global family, is silently pondering the future of our species, so why not go there. The “Cultural Creatives”, for those of you who read Paul Ray and Sherrie Ruth Anderson’s 2002 novel of the same name, are the millions of growing Americans (and a fellow International body) who believe there is something pivotal about this particular time in our course. Many fear we could look back on these last 60 years and the period in which we began to poison ourselves with toxic chemicals which caused epidemic increases in cancer, ADHD, allergies, autism and obesity (among many other health concerns). Chemical Body Burden studies conducted by the Environmental Working Group, have revealed that we all carry a low level of chemicals in our body from the moment we are created in our mother’s womb to the present. These chemicals have increased over time so that a child born today is exposed to a myriad of toxins – far greater than our grandmothers.
Now the good news. There is a revolution occurring – the return of consumer insight to the health and wellness of our personal care products which is leading our corporations to reformulate products. This move is away from the creation of products with toxic chemicals and toward a more mindful development of our chemistry.
This “mindful” chemistry is not only green for the earth, it is also conscious of it’s short and long term effects on humans and other animals. It took the proverbial canary for us to realize the toxins in the coal mine. Today as our marine life and amphibians are disappearing, we now know that the chemicals we produce and pump into our cosmetic and personal care product industry are ending up in our water supply and continuing a vicious cycle of toxic exposure. Remember, the ocean denies no river. Dead zones in our oceans miles wide can be directly drawn back to the chemicals leaching into our water systems.
With all of this knowledge in mind, I recently had the benefit of meeting with the CEO of Burt’s Bees, John Replogle and the Vice President of Research and Development, Celeste Lutrario. I am very encouraged to know that companies such at Burt’s Bees not only understand the responsibility they have to produce safe products, but they also embrace their role as a leader in this movement. The great news is it is not just Burt’s Bees, but hundreds of companies which are awakening in the development of better products to meet the health needs of consumers.
In my conversation with Celeste Lutrario, I learned a bit more about some of the chemicals we have all been hearing about in mainstream media today. Celeste spent 20 years in the traditional cosmetic industry where she formulated synthetic skin care and cosmetic products. When she joined Burt’s Bees five years ago, she was anxious to study the benefits of natural products on the skin. She was aware that there were ingredients in use in the U.S. that were banned in other countries due to concern with toxicity. It was a natural move to Burt’s Bees in her role in R&D as she develops products with this mindful chemistry I mentioned before.
Three chemicals Lutrario gave me some insight into are phthalates, parabens and oxybenzone. Phthalates for example, allow products in formulations to become more flexible, squeezable, harden more readily and have a longer shelf life. In and of themselves, these qualities are beneficial to the product use and for the companies’ profitability. However, they are widely overused and the damages which are being caused by such products may be having an effect on our health since some phthalates are suspected carcinogens in humans. They have been banned in other parts of the world.
A second chemical is paraben, a preservative used against mold and bacteria which is inexpensive to use. However, there has been much controversy over their use since studies suggest they can have health effects such as endocrine disruption. Other preservatives such as DMDM Hydantoin, can produce formaldehyde when they break down in a product. High levels of formaldehyde can be dangerous in humans, and studies have shown it to be a suspected carcinogen. The EWG.org Skin Deep database is an excellent source for information about which products producing formaldehyde. Burt’s Bees products are paraben and formaldehyde free. All preservatives they use are approved by the Natural Products Association.
Finally, I learned from Celeste Lutrario about oxybenzone, the active ingredient in products boasting SPF levels. The CDC conducted a study and found that 97% of the participants tested positive for oxybenzone in their urine. We are also finding high levels of this chemical in our water table and it is causing issues with fish reproduction. So, that means the sunscreens we are using are causing a high level of oxybenzone in our earth, water and fish. The problem? In preliminary scientific studies Oxybenzone is showing endocrine disruption characteristics as well as photo-allergenicity. Meaning, if exposed to light, Oxybenzone may be producing free-radicals. So the very ingredient we use to protect us from the harmful rays of the sun, could actually be contributing to free radical damage and possibly skin cancer.
There is so much more I could write on with this topic and I am not here to scare you but rather to help educate. If each of us could go to the Environmental Working Group Web site and look at the skin deep database, we could learn more about which chemicals we are exposing to our bodies and family on a daily basis. I suggest you take one product out of your bathroom a week, look at the ingredients on the label and educate yourself on the safety of the chemicals being used. It could save your life or that of your children. www.ewg.org and http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com. And their report on safe sunscreens this season is a MUST for all you beach and pool goers.
And other thing you can be doing it to support your congress men and women regarding the Safe Chemical Act (which reforms the current Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced the Safe Chemicals Act 2010, which is intended to enhance the federal regulation of chemicals. Is was previously called the Kids Safe Chemical Act, but we really are addressing all humans, and other species, not just our kids.
And perhaps more than a few of you are reading this entry from work where it might encourage you to carry some of this knowledge into your job and the decisions we make every day in the workplace which can influence and effect the products and services we put out into the world.