Sometimes it's easy to look at study numbers, and without any solid background in the field, infer judgment about what those numbers mean. We do this when we see cancer studies, read about glaciers retreating, or count the alarming number of species that appear to be on the verge of extinction every day.
But within those numbers, percentages and "evidence" there is something even more important to consider —— and that is context.
This issue came up after we wrote a post on the recent Organic Consumers Association (OCA) study which measured and reported trace toxins found in organic, "green" and every day consumer cleaning and beauty products. (Scroll down to read Ecover's response).
In a forum over here in Israel, people started talking about Ecover and the fact that trace amounts of a chemical called 1,4 dioxane was "found" by the OCA in Ecover's washing up liquid —— an all-purpose cleaner. And we posted about it. This wasn't the first time TreeHugger posted on the OCA (see USDA Waters Down Organic Standards).Admitting that we had limited knowledge on what dioxane was, and how it differs between the scary-sounding cancer-linked dioxin, we took on the challenge of writing a post about it. Why? Because it sounded potentially harmful, and some of us over here in Israel use Ecover faithfully day to wash our dishes. If a product costs twice the price of regular dishwashing soap, and in our opinion suds much less than we'd like, we'd expect it to live up to its green reputation.
The commenters in the original post, you will read, had a few things to say about the issue. And we hoped they would. Seventh Generation (thanks for the link guys) posted a long response to the OCA test and the necessity of using dioxane as a surfactant, on their blog. On TreeHugger they wrote:
I don't think this is anything to freak out about. 1,4-dioxane is a byproduct of ethoxylation, a process used to soften harsh detergents. Ethoxylation is used to modify plant oils to make them function as surfactants. It's possible to create surfactants without ethoxylation, but there are downsides (environmental and cost) to these production methods as well.
"There are thousands of substances, both natural and synthetic, that will cause cancer if ingested in large enough quantities over a long enough period of time. Just because there are trace elements of one of them in a product doesn't mean that the product isn't green."
A commenter Mike, who is a chemist, said:
dioxin has really nothing to do with 1,4 dioxane. They look structurally similar, but they are not functionally similar. Both are 6 member ring structures that contain oxygen atoms, but dioxine has 2, carbon-carbon double bonds, giving it very different properties than dioxane. I also think that there is probably no way that either compound could be converted into the other without a very creative chemist."
Did we jump the gun and rip the green "lid" off a company to maliciously expose an injustice that wasn't there? Was it wrong to single out Ecover and not one of the dozens of other brands mentioned in the study? Can we trust the findings of the OCA and do they really have our best interests in mind? What do the numbers mean? Are those chemicals really something that are going to influence our health, and the health of the planet, or would we be exposed to them anyway? Can Ecover improve and find ways to become even better for the environment?
These are some questions we've been thinking about, and we don't yet have all the answers. But we do think it's important to open a dialogue and to not blindly trust the large consumer companies branded "green." We are sure that Ecover has done remarkable things for the planet, actions which have a knock-on effect in other companies and communities. All we were saying, and will continue to say, is that people, now more than ever, need to make sensible and intelligent green choices on a daily basis.
Will I still buy Ecover? Of course I will.
Ecover's letter to TreeHugger (printed with permission by Ecover):
Response to TreeHugger Article
Thank you for the opportunity to respond to the article written by Karin Kloosterman, "Does Dioxane Blow the Cover Off Ecover's Green Cover?" To begin, I was incredibly disappointed that it was implied Ecover had a "cover" of any kind. As pioneers and leaders in our industry for nearly thirty years, having paved the way for phosphate free, effective, sustainably made products, it baffles me that we would be so carelessly lumped in as dishonest or harmful.
As Karin notes in her article, the 2.4 parts per MILLION found in our dish soap, is a byproduct of the production process, not an ingredient we've secretly added. In addition, we disclose all ingredients in our products on our website. This is not required by law but an extra step we take to give more clarity to the users of our products.
Secondly, I believe we have a case of apples and oranges in Ms. Kloosterman's comparison of us to Dr. Bronner's products. There is a reason those products (and others) did not surface in this test performed by the Organic Consumers — they do not make a dish soap! The necessary ingredients to make an effective dish soap versus an all purpose cleaner are completely different. While we appreciate what Dr. Bronner's mission was, it is ridiculous to compare the two.
Ecover has ranked in the upper echelons of product comparisons time and again while remaining competitively priced. We do this all while manufacturing our products in the world's FIRST ecological factory. Our factories are made from sustainable materials, making products from sustainable sources in a manner that is energy efficient.
We are dedicated to improving our products and production methods, whether that be efficacy or impact on the environment. We have always had the environment at the core of our values and we always will. Let's not lose sight of all our missions, to make sustainable alternatives available to everyone. We are a work in progress and we are proud of our work thus far.
Thank you again for this opportunity.
Assistant Marketing Manager
(Image credit: underhindered by talent)