Colorblind Environmentalist: when green raises red flags
I just walked out of Natural Products Expo East. It’s a wonderful 3 day event in Boston, Ma that sets retailers, distributors and manufactures up with each other in the hopes that we all find a harmonious balance of selling, buying, and producing. Three things that Lloyd Dobler wanted nothing to do with back in the early 90’s. It’s no wonder. The business of selling, buying and producing is sneaky business EVEN in the harmonious natural living world. Maybe it’s even sneakier in this realm because we are ardent fans. When we find something that is marketed to us and fulfills our stringent list of demands, or so we hope, we tell all of our friends. We buy each of our friends one, we push for local stores to carry it. We act as an unpaid spokesperson…. Gleefully touting the benefits to anyone who will listen. Unfortunately, sometimes fine print gets by OR maybe a company finds someone that only knows the surface points of the green movement. To these folks; Recyclable or Reusable is enough. Natural or Organic are enough. If it says Eco or Green… they TRUST the company behind the statement. Why would the company mislead. Perhaps the company doesn’t realize that their “green” product is less sustainable than the commercially available conventional product. Perhaps the consumer dollars are more important than full disclosure.
Case in point. Two candle companies at the show claimed to be environmentally friendly. One company stands behind their claims in all of their marketing, on their website and in their actions. This will be Company A. The other makes vague references to being green but the website doesn’t disclose what actions they take and the sales team talks circles when asked; Company B.
Company A: Product is free of parabens, propylene glycol, phthalates and lead wicks. Ingredients are listed on product and website. Packaging is both recyclable and made with recycled content and the company reuses and reduces wherever possible, regularly reevaluating processes to maximize this effort. The company is working towards carbon neutrality and is 100% committed to cruelty-freedom. They do not use any animal ingredients, including beeswax, and does not test its formulations on animals or use ingredients that are currently tested on animals. This information is easy to obtain, it is listed in all of their sales literature, on their website and lived by their spokespeople. I made mention that for a company so committed to the environment, I was intrigued that they kept a sandalwood product in rotation, as sandalwood is at risk for depletion if it is continued to be used in high quantities. The salesperson smiled when I mentioned this. They are so committed to overall sustainability that the founder, who loves sandalwood and does not wish to see it depleted, uses a layering effect in her sandalwood products to create a strong sandalwood scent with only the smallest amount. The other oils she adds help to mimic and reinforce the sandalwood odor. Sure, it’s more complicated but it’s also more environmentally responsible.
Company B: This product uses handmade paper labels that are screen printed with traditional inks. The website makes one reference to its dedication to protecting the environment in a statement of how it reuses its overflow wax. When asked at the show what makes the product environmentally friendly, the sales person responded that it was the use of natural products and that the glass jars could be recycled. Hopefully by now many of us are aware that sometimes “natural” is WORSE than synthetic. The website does not declare ingredients, only because I asked at the show for documentation did I see that they use palm wax. I am aware that palm oil and wax are some of the most common “natural” ingredients in candles and soaps these days. The use of it as a home cooking vegetable oil is touted for lowering bad cholesterol and people love the idea of it for a bio-fuel. HOWEVER, as with anything that suddenly becomes quite popular, the financial gain of growing this product is hurting the environment. Such as the Bamboo Industry has negatively impacted the giant panda by reducing its food source, palm oil is raising havoc in the orangutan population. When I mentioned that I found it interesting that she used palm oil, she brushed me off and turned to talk to someone else. Moments earlier she had been quite interested in chatting me up about how great her products were. This would have been a great opportunity for her to try and convince me of why their use of palm oil was different.
This was just one case. There was the ubiquitous reusable eco-bag that is made from bleached cotton. Cotton is one of the most heavily pesticide laden crops grown. I saw flip flops from a PVC blend (phthalates anyone?!) BUT I also saw some amazing ones from natural rubber that were like walking on clouds! Everywhere I looked there were disposable (is creating more waste really green?!!) wipes made from a rayon/cotton blend in bags made from traditional plastics and printed with traditional inks. Sure, the packaging was pretty but just because the dog food has pictures of vegetables on the bag, doesn’t fool me into thinking there is anything resembling vegetables IN the bag. One company I met with does have an innovative approach to the wipe…they are using the wood pulp obtained as a waste product from mills. This wipe is compostable and degrades rather quickly. Their packaging is a unique polymer that also breaks down completely in 48 months. It oxo-degrades at first and then completely biodegrades shortly after that.
Overall, the green product trends I saw were heartening. There are some really amazing products coming out, one just needs to ask a lot of questions. If the company can not or will not provide the answers, be worrisome. They may in fact be hiding something that makes them less GREEN than you are looking for.