Internet entrepreneur and branding consultant Amy Ziff says she had to become a “weekend toxicologist” five years ago when she discovered her twins were allergic to diapers, baby wipes, creams and lotions.
She found herself researching the ingredients of consumer products to see if they could give her children rashes or blotchy skin. The experience led her to join the growing ranks of Americans concerned about potential carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and other harmful chemicals used in the manufacturing of common household goods.
“I was horrified to find out all of the nasty things that can be included in our everyday products,” Ziff said. “It doesn’t matter whether you shop at the Dollar Store or Barneys.”
Next month, she and her new nonprofit, Made Safe, based in Irvington, N.Y., will unveil a seal of approval for consumer products that don’t use chemicals potentially unsafe for humans. In October, the Environmental Working Group, a prominent research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., launched a similar label, called EWG Verified, targeting personal care products.
The competing labels are believed to be the first to specifically focus on a product’s impact to human health, filling a void left by regulatory agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which have limited authority to police the ingredients used in household goods. The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for regulating harmful chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. But after 40 years, the agency has made little headway in reviewing possible health effects of the tens of thousands of chemicals in commercial use. Bills to reform the law have passed in both the House and Senate, though differences in the bills still must be reconciled.
Labels, labels everywhere
The Made Safe and EWG Verified seals highlight the proliferation of so-called “eco-labels,” which purport to tell consumers whether a given product is environmentally friendly, socially conscious or made without cruelty to animals.
The Ecolabel Index, a global directory of eco-labels, currently tracks 463 eco-labels in 199 countries and used in 25 industry sectors. The labels include such well-known brands as the federal Department of Agriculture’s ubiquitous USDA Organic seal; Energy Star, the government-backed seal identifying energy-efficient appliances and electronics; and Fair Trade Certified, highlighting goods produced by fairly paid workers.
The list also includes many obscure certifications like GEO Certified, the Golf Environment Organization‘s label for sustainable and responsible golf courses, and Leaping Bunny, a program by the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics to identify products that don’t employ animal testing.
Eco-label experts said the Made Safe and EWG Verified seals will tap into consumers’ voracious appetite for health information, but cautioned that they may have a hard time gaining traction with manufacturers or consumers because of the sheer number of competing on-package labels.
“There’s just so many of these eco-labels that it is confusing sometimes – which one is actually telling the truth, which one is credible and so on,” said Magali Delmas, a professor of management at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and Anderson School of Management, where she’s studied the use of eco-labels in wines.
EWG Verified is an outgrowth of the group’s consumer database Skin Deep, which analyzes the listed ingredients of 170 categories of personal care products, from mascara to shampoo.
Moving the market
The online database, which has been viewed tens of millions of times since its launch 12 years ago, compares product ingredients with lists of toxic chemicals and assigns a toxicity score. From the aisle of a store, consumers can look up Skin Deep on their phones and see whether a product scored green (low hazard) or red (high hazard).
Nneka Leiba, the Environmental Working Group’s deputy director of research, said companies tell the organization that their revenues increase when they score green on Skin Deep, a gratifying message for a group dedicated to pushing industry to make fewer products with toxic chemicals.
“I know that with Skin Deep we have moved the market,” she said. “We expect that to happen with EWG Verified.”
Only products that score green on Skin Deep are eligible for the EWG Verified label. To qualify, brands interested have to pay a fee, based on the size of their company; prove that their products do not include any unacceptable or restricted ingredients; and show that their products have passed contamination tests. The price of verification could range from as low as a couple hundred dollars for a small company with a single product seeking the seal to tens of thousands of dollars for a large company with dozens of products up for certification.
Any product receiving the EWG Verified label must agree to disclose all of its ingredients to the public. Manufacturers often hide ingredients behind vague catch-all terms like “fragrance” or “flavor.” The label also requires brands to follow good manufacturing practices and include an expiration date on their products.
Meanwhile, Made Safe, despite not having launched yet, has 12 brands in its pipeline seeking certification.
Anything in the home
Unlike EWG Verified, which only certifies products that make contact with a person’s skin, Made Safe certifies a wide range of goods, from cosmetics and clothing to bedding and cleaning supplies – anything in the home that’s not food. Ziff, the label founder, said she’d like to certify even cars and computers.
Made Safe will offer two labeling programs. It’s base label is similar to EWG Verified in that it will check the list of a product’s ingredients against its own database to ensure that it does not include any unsafe or potentially unsafe chemicals. A tougher label, Nontoxic Certified, will actually test products in their finished form to see if they contain any toxins.
To be certified under Made Safe, brands have to pay an annual membership fee, again on a sliding scale, which could go up to as much as $25,000 for large companies, and agree to be tested every few years. Companies must pay upfront certification, regardless of whether they pass certification. If they do pass, however, they aren’t required to disclose to the public all of their ingredients.
Ziff acknowledged ingredient transparency is vital to consumers concerned about chemicals in their products but said the small Made Safe staff simply doesn’t have enough personnel to police disclosures by brands, although she’d someday like to add that to the label’s requirements.
Both Made Safe and EWG Verified say consumers will be able to trust that any product bearing their seal is safe for human health. But Xinghua Li, who has studied eco-labels as an assistant professor of media studies at Babson College west of Boston, cautioned that eco-labels are not infallible.
She noted that for eco-labels to gain wide-spread recognition they desperately need major, global brands to like Wal-Mart or Whole Foods to adopt them. Those major brands, however, wield tremendous influence, particularly through the fees they pay to eco-labeling groups.
“Overall, the lesson is that consumers should always maintain a critical distance from eco-labels and not blindly trust them. The perception of safety does not equal actual safety,” Li said in an email. “Ultimately, the only thing that can be really trusted are products made by yourself (in your community or neighborhood).”