In these days of greater awareness about chemical safety—and in the wake of the FDA's new concern about bisphenol-A (BPA)—here's an appropriate event that readers
in the Washington, D.C., area might want to attend. The authors of the new book Slow Death by Rubber Duck are reading from 6:30 to 8 p.m. tomorrow at Busboys and Poets.
I haven't read Slow Death, but it looks interesting. And if I could teleport myself to the East Coast tomorrow, I would ask the authors about their choice of title and symbolic icon. You see, I intentionally bought Mini-Mouth a natural-rubber duck bath toy instead of the far more common plastic ones, because I didn't want to expose her to phthalates.
I know some people have serious allergies to rubber (latex), but Slow Death seems mostly focused on the tens of thousands of untested synthetic chemicals that people come into contact with via countless everyday products—chemicals that may well be carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxins.
The answer is probably that the duck is simply more photogenic.
The internet is abuzz with consumers pissed off about bottle maker Sigg's admission that until recently its liners contained bisphenol A (BPA). The sad thing is, it dissembled about that fact for a looong time, carefully crafting language to imply the bottles were BPA-free and thereby capitalize on the scads of people getting rid of their polycarbonate vessels. Read Z Recommends' excellent reporting about it (as well as how to tell if your liner is old or new) here. Notably, some consumers who have bought Sigg bottles as recently as this month have still gotten the old liners—a testament to how long the supply-chain process can be.
The blog's follow-up post on the subject is also troubling: the supposedly better new Sigg liners have been found to chip away from the necks of the bottles, which are aluminum (cue alarm bells going off).
I have to agree with Real Green Girl: While it's good to be assured that known bad things are missing from a given product, the important issue is what's in the thing. (And frankly, if it's chipping off the inside of my bottle, I don't care what it is—I don't want it!)
Say you consider yourself a conscious consumer (and I suspect that many readers do). When given a choice between a traditional product and its greener counterpart, you buy the latter. Now, what if it turned out that you'd been misled about the sustainability of all but a few of your purchases?
That's pretty much the conclusion of "The Seven Sins of Greenwashing," published by Canadian firm TerraChoice: 98 percent of so-called natural or environmentally friendly products sold in the U.S. make false or misleading claims. The report garnered lots of headlines echoing its indignation when it came out earlier this year, and another wave of media attention came earlier this month in the wake of a congressional hearing on defining fair
green-marketing practices (TerraChoice vice president M. Scot Case was among the witnesses who
I think it's helpful, however, to think about the difference between marketing hype and out-and-out deceit. The greenwashing "sins" enumerated by TerraChoice's report include not only lies (like the supposedly Energy Star-approved refrigerator Case himself bought that wasn't) and the use of fictional third-party certification logos—in other words, deliberate disinformation—but also things like vagueness (claims that are "poorly defined or broad") and irrelevance (like proclaiming a product is "CFC-free" despite the fact that CFCs are banned by law).
I'm not so sure that those last two examples amount to greenwashing so much as they amount to greenhyping (if I may coin the term). I go back and forth on this, but recently I've begun to lean toward a stricter definition of "greenwash," in part because of sustainable-business guru Joel Makower's thoughts on the subject.
The way I figure, all kinds of products make all kinds of exaggerated claims. For example, this post in comedian Jennifer Dziura's blog points to a shampoo that says it gives hair a "mirror-like shine." If that were even possible, she writes, mightn't the product's maker incur some criminal liability for making looking at people's hair "equivalent to staring directly at the sun"?
Such hyperbole in traditional products is unfortunate, but the fact is, we're so used to it that most of us don't even give it a second thought. There's no reason we can't apply the same skepticism to products in the green marketplace. In fact, in many cases we already do. I'm reminded of this bag (at left) that I got at some grocery store or other. Not only did I laugh at the contention that the piece of brown paper in my hand could "save our planet" but I also knew perfectly well that the environment would have been better served if I'd remembered to bring a reusable sack from home. Greenwashing? Meh. Greenhyping? Definitely.
It's worth reading Makower's take
on the "Seven Sins" report. He points out that it's
hard to know what percentage of sins in the 2,000-plus products examined by
TerraChoice are what he'd consider justified criticisms and what amount to "nit-picking" on the part of the authors, because the report is guilty of the same lack of transparency it complains about in some of the products it analyzed. "There are no products named, no
sinners shamed," Makower writes. (To which I say: That's probably because TerraChoice is an environmental marketing company. Since it makes money by
helping companies become greener, it wouldn't necessarily be in its
interests to name names.)
I'm not trying to completely diss "The Seven Sins of Greenwashing"—in fact, I find its categorization of the different ways green marketing can go astray quite useful—I'm just saying its big takeaway comes across as a bit sensationalist. If every instance of greenhyping gets lumped into the "greenwashing" category, that has the effect of drowning out the true crimes.
Chalk up another victory for voting with your wallet and mouthing off to corporations: Earlier this month, the six largest American baby-bottle manufacturers announced that they'd voluntarily stop selling bottles containing bisphenol A (BPA) in the United States. BPA is an endocrine-disrupting chemical found in polycarbonate (as well as in canned food linings) that has been linked to a range of health problems, such as impaired neurological development in children, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
That's great news for American parents. However, I was surprised to learn from this article (thanks, Matt!) that the bottle makers will continue to sell the BPA-containing products in the U.K.
It's unexpected because of the wider pattern that characterizes the different approaches to chemical safety taken by the United States vs. Europe. Across the pond, it's the precautionary principle. If a growing body of research indicates that a substance is potentially harmful, you can't use it: The risks of not acting outweigh the risks of acting, even in the absence of scientific certainty of harm. In America, the philosophy is essentially innocent until proven guilty; if there's "no evidence" of harm (never mind the fact that oftentimes no safety assessments are ever performed, as is the case with so many personal-care-product ingredients), no problem!
What an intriguing reversal. Mind you, BPA is not banned in the U.S., where our applicable agency, the (insert your own characterization here: "lax"? "on crack"?) FDA still considers it safe; the baby-bottle victory occurred thanks to the court of public opinion. But usually—as happened with phthalates—such voluntary actions on the part of companies happen because Europe banned the chemical first.
Yet BPA is still permitted in the European Union. What gives? Are all those scientific reports raising suspicions about BPA not credible? Personally, I find that hard to believe. Yet STATS, a nonpartisan nonprofit affiliated with George Mason University, points to the European Food Safety Authority's 2006 report on BPA that concludes that the substance is safe.
Of course, that was a couple years ago; this is now. And while poking around online, I did find this letter (pdf) from four European NGOs expressing concern about BPA to the European Parliament last month.
This is something I'll be watching with great interest in the months ahead.
A few points about the new law on lead and phthalates in children's products:
A minor furor erupted about it recently on my local parents' email list. Everyone is in favor of protecting kids from hazardous substances, of course, but people worried about some pretty important unintended consequences of the law's vague wording.
The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which goes into effect on Feb. 10, applies to all products intended for people under age 13—including apparel. Under the law, all such products must be certified as complying with the new lead safety standard. Any untested items are considered hazardous and therefore illegal to sell.
Would secondhand stores like the one in our neighborhood where many of us outfit our kids be forced to send perfectly good used clothes to the landfill, and either stop selling children's clothes or go out of business because they couldn't afford the costly tests?
No, thankfully. This past Thursday the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a press release clarifying that resellers are not required to do the costly tests. It will still be illegal to sell products containing lead, of course, so stores must carefully screen their offerings to guard against, for example, shoes adorned with lead charms.
However, there's more at stake here than used-clothes sellers. What must also be considered are the livelihoods of Etsy sellers and small natural-toy makers, like the guy I met at the Green Festival last year who complained about having to limit his line of wooden vegetable-themed figurines because he would have to spend money testing not only, for example, the jalapeño toy but also the lettuce one, even though they were made from the same materials, right down to the paint.
Here's a great Z Recommends post about the issue; it includes a bunch of actions you can take to help spur reforms before the law goes into effect, including submitting a comment to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Finally, there's the phthalates loophole. As this story details, this past November, three months after the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act was passed, a legal firm successfully petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission to apply the phthalate ban only to products manufactured on or after Feb. 10 (when the law goes into effect)—which means stores can keep selling phthalate-laden products for who knows how long after the law takes effect, and consumers have no way of knowing the items aren't free of the endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
So, the NRDC and Public Citizen have sued.
Lucky for me and other California residents, a new state law protects us from such shenanigans. As of this year, in the Golden State, it doesn't matter when the product was made; if it doesn't meet the safety standard, it doesn't get sold here.
Here's another case of a company changing a less-than-perfect behavior on its own just as I was starting to get a bee in my bonnet about it: We've been happily using gDiapers, which I've blogged about before, for six months now, but the other week, I noticed that the plastic packaging used for the product's flushable inserts had some misleading text on it. It said, "This Bag Is 100% Recyclable."
Um, no it's not.
Even in San Francisco's single-stream recycling system, plastic bags and films are a big no-no. And while some grocery stores accept plastic bags for recycling, the all-encompassing language in the gDiapers text was probably causing well-meaning but clueless parents to throw the bags into their curbside bins and gum up the machinery.
So I wrote gDiapers and asked what was going on. I pointed out that (as I blogged about in a recent post) the FTC's "Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims" consider calling plastic garbage bags recyclable to be a deceptive claim.
I got a nice reply from gDiapers acknowledging that yes, #4 plastic are tricky and are generally not intended for curbside programs. The statement also explained that the company knows plastic bags are not ideal from an environmental standpoint and is actively searching for a cost-effective compostable alternative that can stand up to the elements.
Meanwhile, the copy on the packaging changed! (I don't claim to take any credit for it, but what a coincidence!) It now reads, "For a happy planet, please recycle in communities where available." Much better.
It's a strange and wonderful thing to have your first Mother's Day or Father's Day as a parent. Mr. Wallet Mouth and I celebrated his day with a delicious South Indian brunch and some poking around in bookstores. Mini Mouth was remarkably well behaved.
Speaking of the baby, maybe it's because of her that I responded so quickly to a recent email from the Environmental Working Group's Ken Cook appealing for money to help fund the organization's Kid-Safe campaign, which officially launches today. Turns out Cook is also a new parent. "It's my first Father's Day," he wrote, "and we couldn't be more excited, but
I definitely don't want a tie covered in stain-proofing chemicals. Instead I want to start fighting for a law that will protect kids
from dangerous toxic chemicals, including the stain-proof kind."
So I slung them some cash for an e-card to Mr. Wallet Mouth. Happy Father's Day, and may we look forward to a less-polluted world in the future.
Ah, the drive to consume. Is anyone immune? I'm certainly not, as this anecdote shows.
Last week, after going to mom-and-baby yoga class, a friend and I, infants in tow, stopped in at Natural Resources, our local pregnancy-and-baby-stuff shop, so I could pick up a pacifier. As we stood at the register, my friend inquired about a toy called Sophie the Giraffe. "We don't have any in stock right now, but we're expecting some soon," the employee told her. "Do you want to put yourself on the waiting list? They tend to fly off the shelves once they come in." Soon a binder appeared on the counter, and my friend was adding her name to the list.
"What's Sophie the Giraffe?" I asked her.
"Oh, they're just these cute toys that are popular," she replied as the cashier put the binder away. "They're supposed to be all-natural and safe for babies."
"Excuse me, can I see that binder?" I heard myself say. "I think I'll put my name in too."
That night as I told Mr. Wallet Mouth about my succumbing to consumer whim, I was forced to admit that I had no idea why Sophie the Giraffe was all the rage, nor did I even have the slightest idea what she looked like. I just figured that any toy with a waiting list at Natural Resources must be worth something. Besides, our cub needed a new enrichment item.
"We call it baby crack. Infants just love it, for some reason," the cashier told me yesterday when I asked what the deal was with Sophie. The order had come in, and the giraffe was now in my hot little hand. While Sophie is cute and soft and made in Europe of safe materials (and endowed with a squeaky noisemaker inside), I wouldn't necessarily have pegged her as the be-all-end-all for babes. But what do I know? The true judge will be Mini-Mouth, who was presented with her new treasure this morning.
Speaking of sugar, today's New York Times features a story about a controversy surrounding Similac's organic infant formula. I found it interesting because it represents another angle on
the question of what "organic" means, something I'm currently exploring
in the area of personal-care products.
Consumers associate the word "organic" with "healthier," but that's arguably not the case here. That's because Similac's formula is sweetened with sucrose, as opposed to lactose, and pediatricians worry that it could increase the risk of childhood obesity.
In Europe, the article points out, formulas sweetened with sucrose will be prohibited by the
end of 2009, thanks to the recommendation of the EU's Scientific Committee on Food, "which found that sucrose provided no
particular nutritional advantages, could, in rare cases, bring about a
fatal metabolic disorder, and might lead to overfeeding."
Technically speaking, Similac's product is organic—the sugar cane was grown in accordance with the USDA's standards, after all—but does the choice of organic sucrose over organic lactose as an ingredient violate the spirit of "organic"? And if it does, would it be desirable or even possible for the "organic" designation to try to control such things?
December 2010 I haven't actually bought anything from Po-Zu yet, but I appreciate their awareness of the fact that many vegan shoes are made of petroleum products and aren't necessarily better for the environment than leather footwear. Po-Zu seems to set a high bar for itself when it comes to ingredients and supply chains.
March 2010 After running out of dish soap, I started using our good old bars of Sappo Hill out of necessity. But you know what? Our dishes are just as clean, and when I pick up the soap at our grocery store, the only packaging on the bars is the price tag. And did I mention the soap is awesome? We love the oatmeal bar.
February 2010 TMI alert: If you're a squeamish guy, read no further. I'm done with tampons! Instead, I'm using the DivaCup.
January 2010 Mr. Wallet Mouth and I both love Pact. Its underwear is made of organic cotton, and the company donates 10% of its sales to worthy environmental causes. Not only that, but the company is serious about eco-friendly packaging. Each pair of undies comes not in a plastic bag but in a little cloth pouch made from fabric remnants. I'm also impressed with how responsive Pact is over email; when I asked a packaging question, I got a nice reply from the CEO.
December 2009 After reading about Skoy Cloths, the biodegradable paper-towel alternative, on Fake Plastic Fish, I bought a bunch for stocking stuffers and my own kitchen, and I'm now a fan. They're lasting a long time, despite repeated washings in the laundry, and they arrive with minimal packaging.
October 2009 I was already of fan of Straus yogurt (see June 2007), but now I love it even more. According to Michael Straus, a son of the company's founder, Straus yogurt "is made, cooled, and set in stainless-steel vats, unlike most yogurts, which are poured while still hot into plastic cups to cool and set." As someone who's concerned about plastics and chemical safety, I'm happy to hear that!
July 2009 I'm using a lot more baking soda now that I'm making more of an effort to clean the house in a nontoxic way. But from now on I'll be buying Bob's Red Mill, since Arm & Hammer engages in animal testing.
July 2008 Started feeling extra-good about buying one of my fave meat substitutes, Tofurky, after learning that its maker, Turtle Island Foods, is an independent, family-owned company (Unlike Boca Foods, which is a subsidiary of Kraft, and Morningstar, which is owned by Kellogg).
April 2008 I'm going to start buying my canned beans from Eden Foods, for two reasons: it uses custom-made cans that don't contain bisphenol A, and it's an independent, family-operated company.
February 2008 From now on, whenever I order takeout or ask for a doggy bag, I’ll make sure to avoid #6 polystyrene containers (and, of course, Styrofoam).