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.

Sustainability & fish farming: working with a real case

Aquaculture, such as fish farming, is a key industry to ensure  sustainable food production in the future. Foods deriving from the seas face many challenges such overfishing and water pollution. At the same time, sea food has many benefits such as low climate impact and high nutritional value.

It is quite clear today that wild fish supply is not sufficient and that aquaculture is necessary in some form in order to supply current populations with sea food. However, fish farming has been criticized for unsustainable practices through the years and the industry still struggles with some of them like sea lice, escapes and sustainable feed sources.

In the course I teach at NHH ‘Measuring sustainability’ we each year work with  a real case on how to measure sustainability. Last autumn, we collaborated with Norwegian Responsible Investment association Norsif on how we can measure and evaluate the sustainability of aquaculture companies. One of the things I love about these cases is the creativity the students show when coming up with new ideas and solutions. I truly believe this kind of creativity, combined with academic thinking and facts, is one of the most important skills we can teach students.

One of the learning points from working with the aquaculture case is how important national regulation is for sustainable fish farming. One of the drastic differences is the use of antibiotics. Aquaculture uses significant amounts of antibiotics, which is a critical issue considering antibiotic resistance, but the industry also shows that it can do without it when it has to, such as in Norway.

Another difficult issue is that fish farming in Europe is mostly done with omnivorous fish such as salmon. It is less efficient to raise fish that partly eats other fish than fish that only feeds on algea. Instead of feeding the salmon other fish, we could eat this fish directly and thus skip the step of raising the salmon. The fish in the feed can also lead to further overfishing. Of course we can feed salmon a vegetarian diet but salmon that are fed on vegetable rather than animal proteins may be lacking in Omega-3, which is one of the main reasons salmon are so healthy for a human diet. A better solution would be to instead farm a fish that naturally feeds on for example algea.

Another key issue for sustainability, the students discovered, is future orientation of the companies and investment in research to find sustainable solutions to issues we have not yet solved. During the course, we we’re visited by the head of sustainability and risk at Cermaq, Wenche Gronbrekk, who explained how the company works to address sustainability issues. Wenche has answered a few of my questions below and also describes their investment in future solutions: iFarm.

Sabina: The Norwegian aquaculture industry has made quite some progress in terms of addressing its sustainability challenges. What are, in your opinion, some of the main achievements? 
Wenche: We have made great progress in lifting the industry standard the past years through collaboration –  through dialogue and knowledge sharing between government, research and industry. Also, in the Global Salmon Initiative (GSI), addressing key issues such as standardization, feed ingredients and biosecurity. Vaccine development has also been key to advancing sustainability to the level we see today.

Sabina: Still, as we have learnt when working with this case, challenges remain. What’s on top of your to-do-list in terms of sustainability?
Wenche: Sustainability requires continuous effort, and we work every day to be better than just complying with minimum standards. Developing new solutions that address key problems is also a priority – such as our iFarm concept. It may solve many of the key challenges today through individualized treatment of each fish, increasing animal health and welfare, optimizing feeding and any need for treatment, which may in turn reduce the environmental footprint of our activities.

Sabina: Sustainability is, according to its definition, about the long term perspective, future generations even. Still most organisations operate with a shorter time perspective in their day-to-day business. How are you able to take the long term perspective into account?
Wenche: Salmon farming is largely dependent on taking a long term view – we operate in the sea and biological risks do not respect financial quarters. To have a business over time, our operations need to be sustainable in all aspects: environmentally, socially and economically. 

Sabina: Many who work as sustainability officers or even head of sustainability find that change management is crucial in order to conduct their work. Is this your experience as well?
Wenche: As a sustainability officer you need to work across the organization, break silos and in many ways be a change agent. Integrating sustainability in business strategy also means that many companies need to innovate their business model – and it is my experience that sustainability professionals often play a central part in this transformation.

A big thank you to Wenche and Cermaq for sharing your experiences with us and also to Norsif and Norsif member Folketrygdfondet and Tine Fossland who attended the students presentations and provided feedback on their evaluation models. We could not have done this without you!

The health bonus of no-shopping: reduced chemical exposure

Last year’s resolution of not shopping any clothes brought many benefits: saving money and the environment, reducing waste and getting a closer, more personal relationship to my closet. There is one aspect, though, that I have thought less about but that I was lately reminded of: reduced chemical exposure. It might even be one of the more important benefits of not shopping.

We all have hundreds of chemicals in our blood, many of which are hormone disrupting. And this is in Sweden and the EU where we at least have the REACH chemical regulation. The US has much less regulation, which is discussed in the documentary STINK (can really recommend this documentary, there is a lot of useful information in it).

New clothes are made, dyed and treated with chemicals and these chemicals can end up in our blood stream with serious effects. We were recently reminded of this fact by the H&M burning-clothes scandals (but it applied to numerous other brands too!). One of the reasons the companies are burning seemingly good clothes is because they contain harmful levels of chemicals and substances. Although it is in fact good that we are not sold these items, it is a reminder of the fact that such chemicals are in the clothes at some level. One could question why the companies do not simply remove these harmful chemicals from the production, as our minister for the environment did in the H&M reportage.

One way that chemicals, such as triclosan, gets into our bodies is thus through clothes. I remember buying a pair of jeans some years ago that smelled terribly, “I smell like a walking pool #toxicfashion” I tweeted. I washed the jeans and continued wearing them despite the lingering smell. If I had known what I know now, I would have understood that the smell could be chemicals that would end up in my body and do damage there. I would have returned the jeans to the store.

In the STINK documentary, the story starts similarly with a pair of smelling pyjamas. However, unlike me, the father in the movie realises not only that it’s a sign of chemicals but also that these might be really dangerous to his kids. His wife has recently died in cancer so he realises that some of these chemicals could even be carcinogenic (spoiler alert!- they are).

The obvious benefit with not shopping is that you are not introducing new items and their chemicals into your wardrobe and to your body. If you also consider more environmental friendly washing options (for example avoiding dry cleaning), this will reduce an overall chemical exposure. Shopping second hand, for example for your child, has similar benefits because the clothes have been washed already multiple times which should reduce the chemical content.

One aspect the STINK documentary does not discuss, and which thus is a weakness from a sustainability perspective, is where the chemicals used in production and that result from when we wash our clothes end up: in the environment and in our waters. But I guess you cannot tell all in one and a half hour.  This part of the story has also been brought up elsewhere, for example in the True Cost movie.

Is expensive fashion more sustainable?

You might, as I once did, think that you avoid the sustainability issues in fashion because you don’t shop at H&M, Gina Tricot, Dressman etc.

The short answer is no, expensive fashion is not necessarily more sustainable. Luxury production in Europe should guarantee better working conditions and less chemicals, but only a few luxury brands still produce in Europe. Those who do might only produce certain parts of the collection in Europe. And ‘Made in Italy’ can these days mean made by Chinese in Italy. Even when something is made in Europe, the fabric may be imported. Luxury brands often source their materials from outside of Europe and then we have the issues with conventional cotton and synthetic fibre etc.

There are also environmental issues with the chrome and heavy metals involved in tanning of leather. If you do want a new luxury bag, check where the leather came from, that it can be tracked to sustainable farming, and for vegetable tanning. I found that Swedish brand Palmgrens had a longstanding relationship the Italian farm the leather derived from and used vegetable tanning processes for a certain bag. Thus it’s the last bag I’ve bought, before my current year of no-shopping, and I don’t feel I compromised on design just because I focused on sustainability.

Another issue with luxury brands is that they don’t consider the environmental impact of care. Many put dry cleaning on the care instructions (as on this Ralph Lauren jacket, made in the Philippines) which isn’t environmentally friendly. And, in many cases, the items are better cared for by hand washing. I don’t know how many times the dry cleaner couldn’t remove stains and when I try at home, as a last resort, it works perfectly. Money and chemicals wasted.

The luxury conglomerates seem to lack a thorough understanding of sustainability issues. For example, when LVMH reports on biodiversity, they write about how they finance biodiversity research rather than how they take biodiversity into account in their sourcing of raw materials. Now I am all for funding research, of course, but certain issues we already know a lot about, such as pesticides and biodiversity. We can act on these today.

Similarly, it is admirable that Kering has developed the Environmental Profit and Loss account (which I often teach to students) but more important is how they handle their everyday sustainability challenges. I searched for organic on Kering’s website and only found ‘organic growth’.

Taking the opposite road, many cheap brands are not as diligent about working conditions and where things are made* but are instead rapidly increasing their share of ‘better’ or organic cotton and renewable fibre. They hardly ever prescribe dry cleaning. But then again they don’t make clothes that should last.

Thus while some brands are working on social issues and others focus on some of the environmental, few brands cover all the necessary issues. Those who do are generally those that started their business with a sustainability focus. These brands are generally slightly more expensive than fast fashion but usually much cheaper than luxury brands.

So the answer is no: price is not a good indicator of sustainability.

* The Inditex group (Zara, Massimo Dutti etc. ) is an interesting exception. Around 60% of their suppliers are located in proximity to the headquarters in Spain.

How businesses handle legal but toxic chemicals

Some might believe that the use of manufactured chemical substances is tightly and safely regulated. Unfortunately it is not necessarily the case. In many cases we do not know yet if something is toxic (for example hormone-disrupting chemicals). In other cases we think it is safe and later find out that it is not. A famous example is the insecticide DDT that not only affected the environment but turned out to be an endocrine disruptor and likely carcinogen. It is prohibited since the 1970s but still found in our bodies and the environment. In certain cases, the company using the substance knows it is dangerous but conceals the information. The latter seems to be the case of Monsanto and glyphosate.

Sometimes businesses are in fact allowed to use substances that are toxic to us and the environment. One current example is PFOS and PFOA. They are water and stain repellent fluorosurfactants, used in all kinds of products. I found it in my water proofing spray for shoes and bags (that I am consequently handing in as toxic waste). They are legal to use. Today, however, we know that they do not degrade and thus accumulate in the environment: in the air, water and our food. They are commonly found in breast milk. In large enough doses it’s toxic and carcinogenic to us. While we are all exposed to it to some degree, the inhabitants of Swedish Kallinge were unknowingly exposed to large doses in their drinking water. Similarly, inhabitants close to DuPont’s factory in West Virginia were exposed to large doses too and developed all kinds of diseases (and successfully sued the company that was aware that it poisoned the water). Dupont has also contaminated the air around a factory in Holland for many years with a similar substance. Swedish environmental radio show Klotet made a very good reportage about these substances this week (in Swedish).

What can we as individuals do? When the substances are out there (and they travel far, for example to the Arctic) we cannot stop them on our own.

However, we can support the companies that voluntarily limit their use of the legal but proven, or potentially, toxic substances.

We can also avoid items that contribute to this pollution, such as teflon, ski wax, stain and water repellent textiles. If we worry about our drinking water, a charcoal filter absorbs PFAS (charcoal filter made a difference in Kallinge ).

Businesses, on the other hand, can learn from the DuPont lawsuits that concealing information about toxicity and contamination is unethical business practice. Even if the substance is legal, they now have to pay for the contamination and health consequences.

When pollution comes back to haunt us

You might remember the cadmium in imported rice scandal or lead in imported rice scandal. These are examples of heavy metal contamination of imported foods. ‘We import foods from countries with too low environmental standards’, you might think. And that’s true.

But how did the heavy metals end up in the foods? How did a fifth of China’s farmland become contaminated? Countries like China and India have for quite some time been producing for our consumption. It has been attractive because of price, but it has also been done under lower environmental standards. One example is the dyeing of clothes. Another example is the production of pharmaceuticals. We know that these industries pollute the water and soils (and there are of course further industries in this category). We also know that residuals of the toxic waste may remain in what we import.

So, ironically,  when these countries produce for our consumption, the resulting pollution comes back to haunt us in the foods we import.

Even more ironically, while contamination of soils in India and China is spreading, we are in Scandinavia placing buildings on uncontaminated good soils that used to be farmland. The national strategy is to rely on imports, both of foods and other kinds of manufacturing. When this is the strategy, we have an interest in the countries that we are now dependent on. It is in our interest that their farmland and water supply remains uncontaminated so that they can continue to produce for us. There is only so much farmland in the world. If our strategy is to rely on imports, then we need to be concerned with the pollution in the countries we import from. Because it is not only the local population’s food supply that is contaminated, it’s ours too.