Wednesday, April 2, 2008

It's Good to Get Busted Sometimes

On March 14, the Organic Consumers Association announced the results of a study they did on how natural "natural" cleaning products really are. They tested for a chemical called 1,4-dioxane, a "probable human carcinogen," according to the EPA.

Of 100 "natural" and "organic" products tested, 47 failed.

Soap makers don't add 1,4-dioxane to their products, but traces of the compound sneak in during the "softening" of harsh detergents. Foaming agents get mixed with petrochemicals. Magic happens at the molecular level. Soaps soften. 1,4-dioxane is a byproduct, and tiny bits of it remain in the soaps.

And, in many cases, those bits are really tiny. Tiny, quite likely, to the point of being safe.

But that's not the point. The point is that a lot of those soap makers misled us. They claimed to be all natural, and they weren't. Petrochemicals weren't ingredients, but they were a part of the production process, and they contaminated the products.

Seventh Generation was one of the companies whose products tested positive. Their dish liquid had lower levels of 1,4-dioxane than any other dish liquid tested (apparently not a single dish liquid passed the test), but the compound was there, and Seventh Generation got busted.

I single out Seventh Generation because of their response. Last week, Jeffrey Hollender, the company's President, blogged about the whole episode. He talked about being the only company that cared enough to show up at the Organic Consumers Association press conference at which the report's findings were publicly released. He mentioned the fact that Seventh Generation lied less than everyone else about their dish liquid. He sounded like he wanted us to feel sorry for him.

And then he did something important. He apologized. He admitted that Seventh Generation had misled. And he promised that the company would improve.

We had had hundreds of meetings and conversations about how to crack the 1,4-dioxane problem. We ran many of our own tests, worked closely with raw-materials suppliers and manufacturers, and celebrated our progress in slashing levels of the compound. We just forgot one essential step: sharing our trials and tribulations with everyone who wanted to weigh in, express their concerns, ask their questions, challenge how quickly we were moving--perhaps even to share a potential solution.

"Forgot" is probably not the appropriate word, but I'll cut the man some slack. I doubt it's easy for him to go in front of his board of directors and ask them permission to take a non-legally-mandated step toward transparency. It appears he's done just that, however, and I'm excited to see how he follows up.


It took me a while to process this little drama, but I like the way the story flows...

Companies say they're doing the right thing. An consumer advocacy group comes in to audit. Results show that, while the companies are doing something that is very very close to the right thing, they are not actually doing the right thing. Newspapers print the story and rightly accuse the companies of lying. The companies worry. Conventional wisdom tells them to stay quiet, but some people wonder if conventional wisdom might be getting a little stale, and at least one company doesn't stay quiet. At least one company admits to misleading and promises increased transparency and consumer engagement.

I like Seventh Generation. They make good soaps, and I think they really truly do want to lead us toward a sustainable world. They're not there yet, though. They deliberately misled people, and that's totally unacceptable. Hollender got whiny in his blog post, and that's a bummer. But I'm optimistic.

Seventh Generation made a promise about being "natural." They broke it, but because they had made the promise, people noticed. Now Seventh Generation is sweating. They've had to raise the bar. They've promised to be natural and transparent. Maybe they won't get there. Maybe they'll lie again. But they'll get caught again. And when they do, they'll have to raise the bar even higher.

It's not exactly the most efficient path to sustainability, the best organized race to the top, but it does seem headed in the right direction.


stegan said...

What's most troublesome about this to me is that the OCA (I got here through their website, by the way) appears to be sponsored by several of the companies that they performed the testing on, including Dr. Bronner's. From a quick glance, the OCA's sponsor's results came back negative for dioxane.

This throws the results into immediate question in my mind, and it should in everyone else's. The OCA in my mind now looks more like a industry lobbying group than a "consumer watchdog" organization. This research should have been done independently, by an organization that doesn't take money from companies at all. It's just common sense.

Frankly, this has me questioning whether I want to buy Dr. Bronner's anymore, not worried about Dioxane.

Jake de Grazia said...

I think that's a totally fair response. Did you try getting in touch with OCA about it? Or find anything published about their relationship with Dr. Bronner's, etc.? I wonder how OCA would respond...

I don't know heaps, but I have a generally good impression of Dr. Bronner's. I saw David Bronner speak at the Bioneers Conference last fall, and he was a character. Seemed like a radically transparent kind of guy. Not afraid to criticize himself and his company. Not pretentious at all. Far far from a know it all. I got the feeling from him the company is pretty out in the open.

But I might be wrong. And your suspicion makes total sense.

I'm going to dig through my Bioneers cards and see if I might have David Bronner's. If I do, I'll email the man. If I don't, I'll find an email for someone there online and see if they'll respond to me.

And if I find anything out, I'll let you know.

Email me if I get slack and don't post again (moreperfectmarket at gmail dot com).

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