Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
The Story of Stuff's 'The Good Stuff' Examines Roadblocks to Greener Chemistry

Do you read the ingredient labels of your products? Here are some from a popular baby shampoo:

“Purple paraben, quarternium-15, sorbitan laurate…,” rattles off Annie Leonard, co-director of The Story of Stuff Project, during the most recent episode of their “Good Stuff” podcast, which discussed green chemistry.

Now, what do those ingredients mean? Where do they come from? If companies are allowed to sell them on the shelves, is that not an indication that they are safe to use? What about the ingredients that aren’t listed … and what does “fragrance” really mean?

During the podcast, Leonard interviewed Beverly Thorpe, co-director of Clean Production Action, an initiative that promotes and delivers strategic solutions for green chemicals and environmentally friendly products.

Thorpe, an ardent advocate for advancing green chemistry for over 25 years, explains that green chemistry is not only about safer products for our immediate interaction — for our skin, in our hair, or around our home — but really a strategy to reduce pollution by attacking it at its source, before chemicals reach the marketplace.

Clean production is a way of thinking of how products are made, from the beginning of the extraction to how it’s manufactured in a product,” says Thorpe. “Unless you have clean production principles, you are going to have increasingly toxic materials.”

Therefore, promoting green chemistry translates into healthier relationships for the consumer — as well as the environment — with products. That means not only highlighting which toxic chemicals are going to increase a consumer’s vulnerability to cancer, but also those which can persist in the environment for decades, polluting water sources and clogging landfills.

Companies such as The Story of Stuff Project and Clean Production Action are not only trying to educate the consumer about complicated chemicals (Leonard remarked that one would need a degree in organic chemistry to understand the average product label), but also to galvanize grassroots efforts that can stimulate regulatory changes.

There already exists, of course, regulations set out by various governing bodies such as the FDA and the EPA, but there still is a significant burden to the consumer to research product ingredients.

“What is a super busy mom to do?” says Thorpe. “Are we supposed to be chemical detectives?”

Thorpe and her team recommend that companies employ a “chemical footprinting” strategy. This involves taking a proactive position in exploring the life cycle of their products, from assessing the potential hazards of chemicals to publicly disclosing chemicals in products, as well as those used in the supply chain. While a number of brands and groups are being proactive in this front and have begun phasing certain toxic chemicals out of their supply chains, a lot of work has yet to be done on this front.

Clean Production Action also recommends a stricter regulatory environment for chemical footprinting, where ideally, a consumer should be completely comfortable grabbing a product off the shelf, without knowing most of the ingredients on the label.

On the other hand, consumers also need to support public policies that advance chemical footprinting and public reporting with the goal of promoting public health.

Taking our rose-colored glasses off for a second, it definitely will not be simple to force mature industries to change their entire production strategies. However, consumer influence has more weight than they may realize, so demand for safer chemicals must also come from those who use them.

Most importantly, green chemistry can still mean a great product. Through the success of cleaning products by companies such as Method, Ecover and Seventh Generation, we know it is possible for safe, environmentally friendly products to be effective and cost-competitive. Therefore, consumers and companies should not be afraid in pushing the limits on advancing green chemical practices.

Last month, the Story of Stuff Project released its latest animated video, “The Story of Solutions.” In the eight-minute clip, “Story of Stuff” storyteller Annie Leonard describes a set of solutions to the issues set forth in the company’s mega-popular series of videos, including “The Story of Broke,” “The Story of Cap & Trade,” “The Story of Electronics” and “The Story of Bottled Water,” among others.

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