Three reasons you should choose environmentally friendly skincare products

Last time, I blogged about the Pink Ribbon and how we should discuss hormone-disrupting and carcinogenic substances in personal care products more. To my mind, there are three key reasons why we should consider going green in the cosmetics department.

First, our own personal health. As I mentioned in the blog post, there are many examples of ingredients affecting our health negatively, for example UV-filter in sunscreen may disrupts hormones. Parabens and breast cancer. There are too many examples here too mention in one post but basically, do not suppose that brands with a green image are truly green. To the opposite, brands such as Clinique, Body Shop and Bare Minerals have been shown to include for example PFOS in products. PFOS is a similar compound to PFAS, if you remember my post about the Dupont case. PFOS is also the chemical 3M was sued for using in Scotchgard. You don’t want this on your skin or in your bathroom at all.

The second reason is because of the environment. I recently reread Johan Rockström and co’s Planetary Boundaries (2015) paper and they state in no uncertain terms that chemical pollution is one the nine key planetary boundaries we need to watch out for:

“The risks associated with the introduction of novel entities into the Earth system are exemplified by the release of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), which are very useful synthetic chemicals that were thought to be harmless but had unexpected, dramatic impacts on the stratospheric ozone layer. In effect, humanity is repeatedly running such global-scale experiments but not yet applying the insights from previous experience to new applications.”

They also discuss micro plastic pollution, again something commonly found in cosmetics and which I have written about before.  As another example, we know that sunscreen seeps into the water and affects corals reproduction. This is why they have forbidden certain sunscreens in Hawaii. In addition, many chemicals are made out of fossil fuels and thus a non-renewable source with effects on the climate. It is estimated that in 2030 the chemical industry will stand for 30% of the total oil production.

There is, to my mind, a naive belief sometimes among consumers that everything is thoroughly tried and tested before it can be used in products. To the opposite, in the paper the researchers write that we need better methods to find out if a substance is harmful before it becomes widely used.

The third reason to go green is social. There are many chemically sensitive individuals that cannot move freely in public spaces because we are constantly spreading chemicals they react to through our perfumes, fragrances and personal care products. Nail polish, hair spray and other evaporating products are, in fact, a form of significant air pollution, believe it or not. It’s called volatile organic compounds (VOC) and yes it’s in your cosmetics. That scent you smell is basically chemical pollution and for someone nearby it might trigger an asthma attack.

So how do you go green? Maybe the most environmentally friendly approach is DIY. These days there are web shops such as Organic Makers that provide all the basic safe ingredients you need. The Zero Waste Home book provides many basic tricks and recipes. But maybe you don’t want the fuss of making it yourself and maybe you like a nice packaging (although that’s less environmentally friendly). If so, there are tons of organic brands out there. I also use several of these, because sometimes that’s good enough.

Almedalen: sustainability, research and politics

Last week I attended Swedish politics week, Almedalen, for the very first time. The occasion was a seminar about sustainability professionals in companies, their work and competences that my employer, Örebro University School of Business, hosted. We are starting a new master profile in sustainable business this autumn and have thus thought a lot about what knowledge and competences sustainability professionals need. So I represented our school and shared our experiences. When developing this master profile, we have been supported by representatives from businesses and student organizations, some of which- Nordea, Grant Thornton, Spendrups,  SEK, Telenor, Young Sustainability Professionals and Sustainergies– joined us for the seminar in Almedalen (which was recorded and can be found here).

Already there, I had the opportunity to attend over 4000 seminars arranged during the week. There was no way to attend all of them, sadly since a large proportion dealt with sustainability issues. However, I managed to attend some seminars on sustainability and some others on research politics.

The panels discussing sustainability and consumption were very gloomy. ‘Consumption has to decrease’ and is ‘destroying our environment’ and ‘the politicians are not doing enough’ seemed to be the general message. I have some major issues with these kinds of statements. First, one has to define what is meant with consumption. Services such as child care and going to the hairdresser are also consumption. We can consume second hand items and probably should increase this type of consumption. Basically, we have to differentiate between different types of consumption and their effects on the environment. Instead KTH researchers from Mistra’s project on sustainable consumption painted with very large brushes and suggested we should both consume and work less. I don’t see how they arrived at this conclusion and am consequently not convinced. Neither are my consumption researcher colleagues when I’ve discussed the issue with them. Consumption per se is not evil, but certain types, such as flying or single use plastics, are bad for the environment.

One take away from Almedalen is thus that it was engineering researchers that discussed economics and business issues such as GDP, growth and consumption. One panel even stated that ‘it is probably just as good that there are no economists on the panel’. I, however, was missing the economics and business researchers and I believe that our presence on the panels would have improved the discussions. Instead, I was sitting in the audience wondering how they defined growth and how they could state that Sweden has substantial GDP growth (clearly they did not consider GDP per capita). Of course research is interdisciplinary, but when it comes to basic definitions in business and economics, researchers in these fields have an advantage: we have worked longer with these concepts.

Attending the social events, generally organized by companies, was a more encouraging experience. I ended up having drinks with the electric cars lobby (who knew they existed?) and attending Atea’s afternoon around the topic of sustainable supply chains in the IT sector and conflict minerals. It’s really encouraging that so much is happening on both these issues. Our partner for the master program, Spendrups, invited us to an entirely organic dinner celebrating that they are now the world’s largest producer of organic beer. My take away from the company discussions is that a lot can happen in a short period of time in the corporate world. And as soon as there is something that looks like a business case for addressing a sustainability issue, companies will race their competitors to get there.

The research politics seminars were also a positive surprise and dealt with topics such as research communication and open science. As for the latter, the panel agreed that professional research communicators are needed and that we today lack incentives for researchers to address the general public. If we want to communicate outside of academia, we have to do it in our spare time. As for the latter topic, it seems as if open science is coming our way and it’s just a matter of time and of exactly how the solutions will look like. The Swedish Research Council (‘Vetenskapsrådet’) is arranging a conference in November about open science which I will try to attend.

Overall, Almedalen was a highly inspiring week that was well worth attending even for a researcher (there were very few of us there) and I hope there will be opportunity to be back next year!

The alternative facts debate: In defense of questioning the facts

It’s challenging times to be in the knowledge business. Twitter followers question whether climate change is real and FB-followers question facts because they are published  in unknown media. And when you don’t agree with someone else’s statement you call it alternative facts. This is, I guess, a sign that parts of the public question some commonly held facts.

While some see this as a dangerous development, that people question commonly held facts and hold alternative views, it is also an opportunity to dive further into the questioned facts and learn something in the process. To proclaim that ‘this is a fact, deal with it’ is unlikely to convince anyone. We teachers know that when our statements are questioned it forces us to learn and ‘know’ the issue on a more detailed level. Having commonly held facts questioned is a challenge for sure, but if we can defend them it’s generally worth the effort.

Unfortunately, some argue that those questioning our facts are driven by emotions and thus that logical arguments do not work. This is not a helpful picture to paint. Of course all of us are motivated by emotions. But if we would apply this at universities, that emotion is the motivation for questioning our teachings and that logical arguments is not an appropriate response, it’s a dangerous path to follow. Nobody wants to be treated as an emotional creature that cannot be reasoned with. In contrast, I would argue that many of us are convinced by logical arguments and remain unconvinced when we are left with incoherent arguments and told to ‘trust the expert’. Instead, if our commonly held facts are questioned, let’s sharpen our arguments further.

Increasingly, researchers are called upon to tell us if a fact is true or not. Are researchers suitable in the role as ‘ fact experts’? Why should researchers, and not others, be able to do this? Researchers are not experts because they work at a prestigious institution, have the professor-title or speak in a charismatic way. They are not better equipped to judge value issues, such as if one political measure is more valuable to the population than another (although we often think so ourselves). However, in certain cases researchers can help us when it comes to facts. It is true that researchers are, generally, good at handling facts because:

  • We are up to date on facts within our own field of research. This field, however, is usually quite narrow!
  • We use facts to test theories and potential explanations and are thus used to questioning and interpreting facts.
  • Occasionally, we develop facts. If facts are necessary for our research but unavailable, we might create them in order to conduct our research. These facts, such as the amount of plastic in the ocean or amount of companies with a sustainability strategy, can be of interest to the general public too.

Instead of raging against those that do not share our facts, don’t agree there is climate change etc., and labelling them alternative facts or anti- this or that, why not look at the explanations we provide. How pedagogical are we? Where are the weak points in our explanations? Which parts of the argument do they question? Do they have reasons to question these points? Can we support our statements further? We might just learn something about the issue and communication in the process.

Why young women going vegetarian for the climate is not necessarily a good thing

Last year one in five of Swedish young women became vegetarian because of climate change. Some might think that this is excellent news. We hear a lot that we should all eat less meat, ideally become vegetarians. The complex problem of food and sustainability has been reduced to the simple statement that vegetables are all good and meat overall bad. Unsurprisingly, such black and white statements are oversimplifications. One of the simplifications is the issue of methane and whether or not it is part of the carbon cycle, as I’ve previously written about here.

Another simplification is how the climate impact of food is calculated. Many calculations are based on how much CO2 is released  per kilogram of the food. This, however, has been criticized by research that shows that calculating CO2 per volume, calorie or even nutrient will give different results. The researchers conclude that “the sustainability of alternative diets, matched for energy and nutrient adequacy, can only be made on the basis of calories and nutrient contents and not per gram of weight”. Surprisingly, if you calculate climate impact per calorie, lettuce appears worse than bacon. Basically, how we calculate the climate impact of food makes a big difference. Like, Gunnar Rundgren I believe that there’s a point in calculating emission per nutrient density.

Taking nutrients into account when calculating climate impact is important because, as Rockström has pointed out, food is both a key factor in the health epidemic as well as the climate. Half of Swedish female adolescents have iron deficiency, one in three women in general. It is well known that iron from meat type of sources is absorbed more easily (25%) than from vegetable sources (5-10%). Research on diets and climate change acknowledges that reduced meat in diets is especially problematic for young women for this reason.

If we encourage women with iron deficiency to become vegetarians, we’d better be sure it is beneficial for the climate.

I am not so sure it is and I’ll use the following example with two high impact foods to illustrate why. Lamb is generally viewed as the meat with the highest climate impact. Rice, because of methane emissions, is among the highest climate impact grains. A Swedish lamb provides a carbon footprint of 16 kg CO2-equivalent per slaughtered kg lamb. A kilo of Thai rice provides between 1.34- 3.57 CO2-e per kg. Let’s say 2.4 kg CO2-e/kg.

Calculating emissions according to weight, yes lamb (16/kg) is much worse for the climate than rice (2.4/kg). You can eat six times as much rice and still release less CO2.

However, we have all heard about empty calories. What’s important is not only how much we eat but the nutrients the food provides us with. And we have to consider a woman’s recommended daily intake of iron, around 15 mg (9 mg for men). So here’s the issue. You would have to eat 3.2 kg rice a day to get the daily iron allowance. And considering the sort of iron and its lower absorption, it is even more. If you instead eat lamb, maybe even liver, 300g/day is enough. Of course, in reality no one would rely on a single food to provide all the necessary iron but the figure shows how efficient liver would be in doing so.

So to get your recommended daily intake of iron, what is the climate impact? For Thai rice the climate impact is at least 7,68 kg CO2-e. For Swedish lamb liver it’s 4,8 kg CO2-e.

Now, you might say, young Swedish women know about empty calories and would go for broccoli rather than rice. Still lamb liver is more efficient than broccoli in delivering iron per kg CO2-e. You would have to eat more than 2,3 kg broccoli to get the recommended daily intake. In climate impact that’s (using the example of UK broccoli) ca 5,3 kg CO2-e.

My message is really this. We have to consider nutrient content and absorption instead of climate impact per weight or calorie. When we consider nutrient content and absorption, we may find that going vegetarian is not a good idea. Instead, eating small amounts of nutrient dense food, like lamb liver, helps young women to maintain their health.

It is more climate friendly to eat small amounts of nutrient dense foods than eating large quantities of empty calories.

The nutrient argument was highlighted by researchers with connections to the Swedish dairy industry in 2010. While we of course have to be wary of industry motives, I still believe the overall idea of considering nutrients in relation to climate impact is a sound idea. And the general lesson here is that how we calculate affects the results we get.

On the picture: grazing sheep on the west coast of Norway, are they really that bad for the climate? It depends on how you calculate.

Can we really compare meat to fossil fuels?

Many sustainability proponents these days encourage us to become vegetarians. At least once a day there is some article along these lines in my Twitter feed. Unfortunately, there are many arguments circulating in this debate that are quite misleading. The worst error people make, in my opinion, is to equate emissions from cattle with emissions from fossil fuels.

This is simply misleading because these emissions have very different relationships to the carbon cycle. By burning fossil fuels we are adding carbon to the carbon cycle whereas emissions from cattle have a role within the carbon cycle, it naturally belongs there.

Let me explain. We all learnt about the carbon cycle in school and thus we should know that carbon circulates between the atmosphere, to plants, to animals and us humans and is yet again released into the air. Microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi etc. also play a role in this. It is how it should work in nature. Animals have a part to play in this cycle by both storing and releasing carbon in different forms.

Now whereas cattle is part of this normal carbon cycle fossil fuels are not. Fossil fuel is stored away carbon that is suddenly released into the atmosphere through human intervention. Because the natural carbon cycle cannot absorb all this added carbon, a larger portion of it remains in the atmosphere. The natural equivalent is a volcanic eruption. But these days we have constant man-made emissions of such stored away carbon. This way, we add carbon to the atmosphere that was not there before and would not have been released without us. This is indisputable and should really be our focus since we know this for certain.

Now some argue that because we hold cattle as part of our food chain we have affected the carbon cycle by raising more cows than what existed before human intervention, i.e. before animal husbandry. That there are more animals on earth today, and particularly ruminants, is a hypothesis that is difficult to prove. We don’t know exactly how many animals existed before our animal husbandry or how many of these were ruminants, so it is only estimates. Even if there are more ruminants living on earth today, it is not necessarily a problem because cattle also absorbs carbon. Just as us humans, their bodies are partly built of carbon that is released through breathing and when we die etc.

The problem with more ruminants on earth, according to the veggie proponents, is that ruminants release more methane than other animals. Thus we have shifted the carbon cycle towards more methane, they argue. However, the more we learn about methane, it is not really an isolated case of cows as such but methane producing bacteria that we find in all kinds of environments. Moreover, most of these emissions do belong to the natural carbon cycle that was there before us. It is possible that human behavior provide more beneficial environments for these methane bacteria, by raising more ruminants (who release methane) and rice agriculture. But then again, there might have been wild animals and natural swamps before and if so there has not been a significant change. We basically don’t know. There are estimates in both directions.

Acting on very incomplete information on how methane acts is in my opinion risky. Before we start to mess with the methane-producing bacteria in the cow’s stomach (which they are now starting to do), let’s learn more on how it actually operates. And when we do address methane, let’s include all man-made sources such as rice, landfills and wetlands too.

Thus we see that equating fossil fuel emissions to emissions from cattle is misleading. In the case of fossil fuels we know that we have added carbon to the carbon cycle and in these amounts it cannot be absorbed in the cycle (although the oceans have compensated a lot). In the case of cows, we don’t really know whether we have shifted the carbon cycle towards more methane because of animal husbandry. Moreover,  the case is not just about cows but methane producing bacteria that could be affected by many of our activities. We still need to learn much more. So until we do, let’s address the things we know for certain and that are urgent: our red meat habit is pretty stable whereas our flying habits have exploded the last decades.

There’s so much more to say on the subject of climate change and food but I find this to be one of the main points.

On the picture: cow at Lovö Prästgård in the Stockholm area.