Companies and science: some take aways from the Monsanto trial

US multinational Monsanto has been involved in countless trials for its products and most recently its popular weed killer Roundup. The lateste trial, the Johnson cancer case, concerns a school groundkeeper and was the first to take the weed killer Roundup to trial. The trial got a lot of publicity, especially after Johnson famously won. Supposedly, this ‘win’ opens up for further trials on cancer and Roundup and is thus bad news for Monsanto. It is also bad news for German pharmaceutical company Bayer, that just recently acquired Monsanto. 

Aside from the fact that this widely used weed killer, Roundup, might cause cancer, the case is interesting because it reveals how Monsanto was actively working to shape the science around its product. During the trial, letters were released that revealed many examples of such questionable science-business practices. As one example, Monsanto appears to have been involved in ghost writing i.e. that the company writes text and then asks academics put their name, as authors, on it. As one of the revealed examples, Stanford researcher Mr Henry I. Miller wrote a piece on Forbes’s website in 2015, based on a Monsanto draft and failed to mention any involvement by Monsanto thereby violating Forbes policy for authors. The Forbes piece in question was written in response to the findings of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, that had just labeled glyphosate (ingredient in Roundup) a probable carcinogen. 

Another incident concerns the retraction of research that is unfavorable for the company. In 2013, while he was still editor of the journal ‘Food and Chemical Toxicology’, Mr. Hayes retracted a key study damaging to Monsanto that found that Roundup, and genetically modified corn, could cause cancer and early death in rats. Later, it surfaced that Mr Hayes had had a contractual relationship with Monsanto. This piece in the NYT covers most of the story. This article by science journalist Paul Thacker is also worth while.

What can we learn from this in terms of business and sustainability? Certain companies will inevitably have a strong interest in research, for example to show that their products are safe and effective. In my opinion, the fine line between science, corporate interests and corruption is a key business ethics issue for these companies that the management needs to handle. If not, when such business practices fail, it may show up as cases of unethical business practices, corruption or in the worst case, as for Monsanto, as legal cases. The EU regulation on non-financial reporting requires large companies to report on their anti-corruption and anti-bribery policies and practices. For companies with a large stake in science, how to avoid this kind of unethical incidents should be accounted for in this section.

Moreover, as a take away for us as researchers, we cannot be naive regarding the very strong incentives certain companies may have to meddle with science. While uncovering such cases may feed the publics distrust in science and media, e.g. the fake news debate, not uncovering biased or in worst cases incorrect research may risk the whole scientific system as such.

Regarding questionable retractions of research papers, to my mind full transparency is to not actually retract a paper but to let it remain with proper commentary for example as to why the research findings or methods are questionable. Paper retractions may otherwise, if we are not very careful, become a tool for censorship.

Steering businesses towards a circular economy

As I have previously blogged about, the students in my master course ‘measuring sustainability’ at NHH have analysed and proposed indicators that H&M and other fashion companies can use to steer their business towards a circular economy. We are very thankful to H&M and sustainability manager Luisa Book for collaborating with us on this case. The topic is very much of the moment as an increasing number of companies, just like H&M, aim to become circular but then also need appropriate tools to help steer their operations in this direction.

Some of the indicators the students proposed, such as amount of recycled material out of total use of materials, are maybe not new but are crucial when a circular business is the target. Moreover, the number of times a material can be recycled needs to be monitored in order to make sure that recycling is not just a prolonging of a linear path (see Circular Flanders great illustration of this to the left). In an ideal world, materials can be recycled indefinitely.

The students also argued that it is key to keep track of collecting initiatives i.e. when brands collect used or discarded products. How much of what is sold returns to the company for recycling? Moreover, companies need to monitor what happens with collected garments- are they recycled into new garments or in fact only downcycled (used for other less valuable products)?

One reason materials cannot be recycled is because the materials are contaminated for example by chemicals that hinder recycling. The students here proposed to measure the use of such chemicals or substances. By monitoring, the company can also try to minimize such use. To know if the product is made with substances that might hinder recycling, you need proper information about what the garment is made of and how it is made. Here the students proposed that H&M could develop more elaborate tags with information about the item which could help the customer to take care of it and, eventually, facilitate the recycling of the garment.

Another point that is crucial to circular operations is to keep the materials in the processes. In the textile industry, a lot of fabric gets wasted and does not end up in any garment. Consequently, some students suggested to measure the amount of material that ends up in a garments in relation to total amount of materials used. Ideally, all materials used should end up in a garment. Similarly, the students also identified microplastics as a threat because it means that small amounts of plastic fibers continuously leave the circular flow and non-renewable materials are subsequently lost.

Another aspect commonly discussed in the context of circular economy is the slowing of the circle i.e. the prolonging of a product’s life span. Here the students reintroduced the idea of enabling users to repair their clothes, for example by making sure all items come with threads or buttons necessary for repair or providing repair services in stores. The company can track both the use of repair services and number of items that customers could repair themselves.

I hope that H&M and other companies will find the students work helpful. How to measure a circular business is really at the forefront of both practice and research. In fact, two research colleagues and I just last week got financing for a project on circular business practices by Vinnova. That the students managed this task so well and were able to develop these very helpful indicators show, to my mind, that we at University teach students useful and up to date skills. We educate students that can in fact contribute to and improve current business practices.

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.

Pink ribbon month and carcinogens in products

It’s October and breast cancer awareness month. And every year some of us wish that there would be a discussion about carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting substances in products instead of selling these products under the pink ribbon label. I can’t find a word on the Swedish site about carcinogenic substances. In contrast, I think we need to discuss this issue much more. Such a discussion would benefit the companies that face out harmful substances proactively, before regulation forces them to do so.

Because even in the EU we have carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting substances in products. Sometimes it’s because we just recently found out the substances were harmful, for example parabens in cosmetics involved in breast cancer. And, after we have found out,  regulating them takes several years, as in the case of phtalates. Other times the substances are already forbidden but are still used repeatedly by companies. Yet other substances, such as BPA, are forbidden through REACH regulation but still allowed in food packaging, such as take away cups, because these are not regulated by REACH  but by EFSA.

Overall, EU might do a better job than the US in regulating harmful substances but is still far from perfect. Sometimes the replacements are not necessarily better than the original substance, as these researchers discuss. Interestingly, the researchers found that people eating out are more exposed to the harmful substances because for example restaurants use packaging not allowed for individual customers.

What else can we do? Be careful about personal care products. Avoid packaging when possible. Here I see the zero waste movement as an inspiration. Using refillable mugs, you avoid the BPA in paper cups. Shopping at the farmers market, you get your vegetables in paper bags instead of individually wrapped plastic. And obviously, not buying new stuff, when you don’t really need to, is not only cheap but reduces your chemical exposure too.

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.