Guest blog by Maija Witte, M.P.H
When WalMart revealed that they were working with the Sustainability Consortium to develop a section on their website devoted to sustainable products called the Sustainable Leaders Shop, I was thrilled! It seemed that they were finally coming around to the idea that supporting sustainable products (both in an environmental and health sense) is good for business and consumers alike. On its website WalMart claims, “these products help sustain people and the environment.” Would this mean that I could now buy sustainable, safe products at a lower price point?
It turns out I got ahead of myself. After I did some deeper digging, I learned that the program is not all that it’s cracked up to be. In fact, I think it may do more harm than good. It is a pay-to-play system, which means that companies pay large sums of money to be considered part of the polling pool- drastically reducing the variety of businesses who are able to participate. Companies like Unilever, P&G and Revlon, are scored against one another, based upon responses to a survey about …well, we don’t really know, as you’ll see. WalMart does not publicly reveal how products and companies deemed “Sustainability Leaders” are assessed and scored, which is a problem from a consumer right-to-know perspective. I think it’s safe to say that most consumers would logically assume a product and its ingredients are safe, healthy and sustainable, and free of toxic chemicals such as carcinogens, but unfortunately that’s not the case.
If WalMart’s program seems opaque…it is. It’s also a classic case of green washing, which is when a company spends more time and money claiming to be “green” than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact.
So I started digging a little deeper and I found that many of the products, which were promoted as part of the Sustainability Leaders program, contain cancer-causing chemicals. Here are just five examples of products that were listed when the program was launched in February 2015:
For a brand that tries very hard to make its products look healthy, St. Ives is full of some nasty chemicals. Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Ceteareth-20 can be contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane – two chemicals linked to cancer. 1,4 dioxane doesn’t show up on the label because it is a contaminant created during the manufacturing process, and research shows that 1,4-dioxane readily penetrates the skin. This contaminant is considered a possible human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program, and is included on California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known or suspected to cause cancer or birth defects. I am all for a blemish free face, but don’t think it is worth the possible increased risk of chronic disease that may go along with this.
Contains: DMDM Hydantoin.
DMDM Hydantoin is a chemical that releases formaldehyde to preservative the product. Formaldehyde is considered a known human carcinogen by many expert and government bodies, including the United States National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. While it may be a naturally occurring substance, this carcinogen has no place in my personal care products. Some people think because it’s naturally occurring that it’s okay, to which I say, arsenic and lead are naturally occurring substances too, and no, I don’t want these chemicals in my products either.
Contains: DMDM Hydantoin.
This product also contains DMDM Hydantoin, and claims to be made with skin loving ingredients. Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives don’t sound very loving to me.
Triclosan is an antibacterial chemicals and known endocrine disruptor found in personal care products, especially antibacterial hand soaps and some toothpastes. It accumulates in our bodies and in wildlife and has been linked to hormone disruption and the emergence of bacteria resistant to antibiotics and antibacterial products. I don’t know about you, but I like the idea of antibiotics actually working when I need them, and not disrupting my hormones in the process. That’s pretty scary stuff.
Triethanolamine (TEA) is an ingredient used as a fragrance, pH adjuster or stabilizer and can be contaminated with carcinogenic nitrosamines. Even without this contamination, TEA may be linked to liver cancer. Data is emerging that suggests benzophenone-4 is as a hormone disrupting compound, just like its sister chemicals benzophenone-1 and oxybenzone.
With all this said, I think it is clear that the “Sustainability Leader” program is inadequate and full of smoke and mirrors. Consumers shouldn’t have to shop their way out of any problem, and all people, regardless of income level, should be able to find safe and non-toxic personal care products. Until Walmart is able to put a meaningful sustainability program in place that assesses health and safety, they should stop misleading consumers by awarding products with the label of “Sustainability Leader”, especially when those products are neither safe nor sustainable!
As we head into 2016 and Walmart updates the products listed in the Sustainability Leader Shop, I hope that they will start to include other companies and products which are truly sustainable and non-toxic. Stay tuned to see what kinds of changes to their program are to come next year…In the meantime, if you need some help figuring out which products are safe, here are a few recommendations:
- For any personal care or beauty products, check ThinkDirty or the Good Guide to see how they rate!- These are two awesome guides that can help you figure out the health and safety levels of a product, and even offer similar products with safer ingredients- it’s a win-win!
- Try a DIY gift- Sometimes simpler is easier. Make a DIY sugar scrub for you and mom, or try creating a beautiful toner for your nightly beauty regime- not only will it be a fun bonding moment, but will keep your skin looking fabulous.
- Check out the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics safer companies list to update your beauty bag!
About Maija Witte:
As the Marketing Campaign Research Coordinator, Maija’s research helps to inform strategy for both of the Breast Cancer Fund’s biggest marketing campaigns, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and Cans Not Cancer. As a young cancer survivor with no family history, she became interested in learning more about environmental links to the disease, which led her to pursue a Masters in Public Health from the University of San Francisco. She has become a cosmetic and personal care product expert, and is always on the look out for safer alternatives.