There seem to be two aspects to the increasing popularity of eco products – there are, of course, the environmental and ethical attributes, but there's also the idea that "eco" equates to natural and non-toxic.
To what extent though are we being misled or even outright conned by ambiguous labelling or gratuitous use of the words "eco" or "organic"? There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that this, in fact, is a widespread problem, with the exception of organic food items, which are very strictly monitored.
Manufacturers are exploiting the good intentions of the public with cleverly worded descriptions which can suggest that a product is something it's not, with the beauty and textiles industries being amongst the worst culprits, although they're not the only offenders.
Did you know that a beauty or personal care product can be called organic even if it only contains 1% of organic ingredients? Theoretically, you could have a product which is identical to a shop's own brand no-frills range, containing a cocktail of undesirable chemicals and irritants, but with the mere addition of a tiny amount of one organic ingredient and some attractive packaging, you can be easily lured into paying a premium price for something that really isn't what its labelling suggests.
A similar tactic is commonly used to further mislead, by stating "With 100% certified organic ingredients". Again, this could mean that it contains only one or two ingredients which, individually, have been certified as 100% organic but which might only form a very, very, small part of the whole product's composition, rather than all of the ingredients, as the wording perhaps implies. It can be really tricky for the consumer to establish this distinction without laboriously checking the ingredients list against the claim. Moreover, many people assume that manufacturers wouldn't be able to get away with such deception and don't realise that they're as well protected by legislation about this than they'd expect.
Surely "natural" or mild products can be trusted?
Given the perceived close association between green, natural and non-toxic products, it's important to also mention that claims or insinuations of "natural" or mild ingredients should also be regarded with a healthy degree of caution. Just because an ingredient is natural, this doesn’t mean it isn't harmful….. in the same way that sugar is natural, but is nevertheless still capable of rotting our teeth, contributing to obesity and causing all sorts of other serious health problems! In the context of beauty products though, natural fruit acids, as an example, can be an extreme irritant on eczema-prone or sensitive skin, despite the image of these as desirable additives to a skin preparation.
A false sense of trust can also be lodged in our minds through our perceptions of well-known brand names. It's staggering how many top household-name brands of baby skin, bath and hair products promote their mild qualities, yet they almost all contain Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (or SLS) as one of their main ingredients. This substance and its derivatives (such as Sodium Laureth Sulfate) are used as foaming agents and detergents in the vast majority of brand name and shop-branded personal care products.
This widely used chemical is a known irritant but, more worryingly, it can react with other commonly used ingredients to become carcinogens. Staggeringly, SLS and its derivatives are even found in many products from a fragrance-free brand, which is particularly famed for its claims of using simple, pure, ingredients which are "dermatologically tested*". The example of this chemical being used even in this brand really demonstrates how susceptible we are to being misled. Even long-established and widely trusted brands are profiting from us making a positive judgement on a whole product or range, based on their brand image and very selective information that they highlight.
* Do be aware that the term "dermatologically tested" is meaningless – it merely states the obvious… that a product has been tested on skin! It doesn't tell you anything about the results of those tests and whether a product failed testing or caused any adverse reactions!
Does any of this really matter?
It's so tempting to dismiss talk of irritants and toxins in beauty and hair products as just scaremongering, but it's worth bearing in mind how extremely effective nicotine and HRT skin patches are at absorbing chemicals straight into the bloodstream, via a very small area of skin. Yet we apply literally hundreds of harsh chemicals to our skin every day – the figures very quickly mount up when you consider the chemical cocktails making up each one of our many daily personal care and cosmetic products. Hair, shower and bath products can be even worse, because they're usually applied with hot water which opens the pores, allowing an army of chemical Trojan horses to penetrate the skin with ease. The mere fact that we can still smell the products on our skin after a bath or shower clearly demonstrates that they're not even completely washed away. High-profile media reports have stated that common ingredients in deodorants have been specifically linked with breast cancer, but do we really want to wait until national headlines draw our attention to a problem before we adopt a more cautious approach? Or do we continue using these chemicals in abundance before it's announced that scientific proof has been found that these ingredients are carcinogenic? How many people died of lung or mouth cancer through smoking before it was formally acknowledged that cigarettes did cause these?
Babies and children have much thinner skin and under-developed immune systems than adults, so it's all the more important to be very selective on their behalf. They're so much more vulnerable and sensitive to the effects of irritants or toxins which they might inhale or have in contact with their skin. It's no wonder that eczema, asthma and allergy statistics are sky-high with so many "not-as-mild-as-you-think" baby skincare products dominating High Street and supermarket shelves.
We can't protect ourselves completely from the invisible chemical invasion that is part of modern life but, where there are safer alternatives, surely there's much to be gained by at least reducing the extent to which these accumulate in our – and our children's - bodies?
Bamboo: In the UK bamboo is currently enjoying its reputation as an ideal eco fabric and is often claimed to be an organic textile, simply because it is bamboo, but things are not quite as they seem with this either. Bamboo is certainly a very sustainable resource, being a fast-growing crop which requires little water or pesticides. However, bamboo is always (unless it is certified organic) saturated in extremely toxic chemicals in order to harvest the fibres for textile production. In more recent years, Authorities in Canada and the US have been cracking down on the labelling of bamboo fabric in order to address this flawed implication of it being such an eco-friendly fabric.
Organic cotton: The benefits of organic cotton are becoming more widely recognised, particularly for baby products or for eczema or allergy sufferers. Conventional (non-organic cotton) is one of the worst crops in the world for pesticide use, causing far-reaching and devastating environmental, social and health problems. Residues of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals can remain on the fabric of the end product, which you might be giving to your baby or child, yet ironically it's regularly hailed as "pure" cotton. Only certified organic cotton warrants being described in this way, provided the fabric hasn't been contaminated by toxic chemical processes after certification such as dyeing, finishing, etc whilst being made into an end product. These latter stages in manufacturing introduce numerous opportunities for the purity of an organic fabric to be compromised and there always remains scope for companies to make false or deliberately ambiguous statements about their finished products.
Organic cotton toys are becoming firm favourites as newborn baby gifts or as choices for parents who want natural, chemical-free, toys for their babies and children. Organic soft toys eliminate the worry of harmful or irritant chemicals being ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin when babies and children put their toys in their mouths or cuddle them against their delicate skin. Numerous retailers do mis-state the organic integrity of toys though - possibly through their own false assumptions due to lack of knowledge or their interpretation of the manufacturer's descriptions, rather than intentional deceit. This may be the reason why too often retailers claim that a toy is entirely organic when it has a non-organic filling, or if it is only partially made with organic cotton but wrongly implying that it is 100% organic. Other examples are retailers not being able to recognise that there's a huge distinction between eco/sustainable and organic (with certification to support that claim). After all, that's what the organic certification is for – so that the consumer has proof that an organic claim is genuine. Far too often though, people just aren't getting what they think they're paying for.
Most of us lead busy lives and we just don't have time to analyse every product in depth in the supermarket or in busy shops, especially if we have young, easily-bored, children in tow. This does leave us more vulnerable to misleading claims but internet shopping does allow us more time and better opportunities to investigate green or organic claims more fully.
Most of us tend to be quite trusting of labelling, not realising there are so many legal loopholes being exploited, often believing what we're told on the packaging, but it does pay to become a bit more sceptical and to question exactly what you're buying.
Author Bio - Natalie Southgate owns the Organic Toy Company and is the Mother to three children - http://otoys.co.uk/