Brands that are committed to sustainability could conduct efficient, cost-effective research to show that their products help reduce exposure to harmful substances, leveraging their commitment to sustainability and expanding it to a commitment to consumer health.
We know that when making buying decisions, personal health is one of the strongest motivators for consumers and their families. And while there are many reasons why brands may be motivated to embrace sustainable features (e.g., packaging, materials, etc.) for their consumer products, the health impact of sustainability may be a strong but largely unrealized motivation for customers to choose sustainable brands over conventional ones. We are wondering why a brand’s health story is underutilized and how this can be changed. Would sustainable brands be leveraging their positive health story more than they do today if we they knew that demonstrating the health impact of their products is easier and less cumbersome than you would expect?
Take, for example, chemicals used in traditional packaging materials or as components of the products themselves (e.g., phthalates, phenols), which have been associated with adverse health outcomes. Studies demonstrating this linkage often take many years and are expensive to run, but it is possible to conduct short-term studies that demonstrate that exposure (based on biomonitoring, which is the measurement of chemicals in human biological samples such as blood or urine) goes down when sustainable products are introduced — and back up when sustainable products are removed. Linking the specific exposures to adverse health outcomes then begins to tell the brands’ (evidence-based) health story. And the good news is that these short-term studies can be both cost-effective and scientifically rigorous.
“Clean” soap (produced without fragrances, dyes, triclosan, chlorine or phthalates) and flame retardants are powerful examples. Flame retardants have been used in consumer and industrial products since the 1970s, including many products that people come into contact with several times a day — think upholstered furniture, infant and toddler car seats, mattresses, carpets and curtains. Adverse health effects of exposure to flame retardants include disruption of endocrine, thyroid and neurological function; impacts on the immune system, and adverse effects on fetal and childhood development. While many flame retardants have been removed from the marketplace or are no longer produced, human exposure remains high to new classes of flame retardants that are metabolized and eliminated more quickly. Studies are underway to determine if these newer flame retardants may also lead to adverse health outcomes.
However, a recent study showed that using sustainably produced soap, along with other behavioral interventions including guided handwashing and house cleaning, reduced exposure by close to half in a sample of 32 individuals over just a two-week period. This dramatic decrease in exposure is just one example of how sustainably made products can generate potentially significant health gains in a short period of time.
Another example links the elimination of plastic packaging to a decrease in potentially harmful exposure to BPAs — another endocrine disruptor, which produce adverse developmental and reproductive effects in both humans and animals. Endocrine disruptors may be most dangerous during prenatal development and early infancy, when organ and neural development are still underway. Another recent study showed that replacing plastic-packaged foods with “fresh foods” (avoiding contact with plastic packaging and non-stick cookware, stored in glass and BPA-free containers) resulted in a significant decrease in urine levels of endocrine disruptors such as BPA after only 3 days. Many companies are already working on alternatives to plastic packaging, because we know how bad single-use plastics are for the environment and our oceans. But no brands are talking about the potential health gains for consumers who make the switch to more sustainable packaging options, and how quickly those gains could be realized for individuals and families.
Rigorous research doesn’t need to be expensive or time-consuming. These studies, and several others like them, demonstrate that efficient and cost-effective research can evaluate practical interventions that can have real-world health impacts. Brands that are committed to sustainability could show that their products help reduce exposure to harmful substances, leveraging their commitment to sustainability and expanding it to a commitment to consumer health. In the race for “eco bragging rights,” credible data from such analyses can be used as compelling evidence in marketing campaigns and brand strategies to motivate consumers to choose sustainable brands over traditional ones.