Cleaning Up the Dirty Ingredients List


Cleaning Up the Dirty Ingredients List

Why is it important to make soap more sustainable? How do you do that? How can sustainability be built into a high-touch, design-centric brand? And if you do it right, what does sustainability strategy do for a company?

These are the questions that Method's greenskeepers started with and they're the questions we'll explore in this column. We'll look at how our sustainability strategy is shaped, executed and refined across nearly every function of our company -- from designing products and choosing materials, manufacturing and distributing via our supply chain, engaging employees and building trust with our advocates and customers.

But first of all, who is Method? And why are our adventures in sustainability relevant?

Method is a San Francisco-based maker of cleaning, laundry and hand wash products. Roommates Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan started Method in 2001 after realizing that the cleaning product category -- characterized by ubiquitous, stinky, outdated products made from materials with long lists of worrying side effects -- was ripe for innovation. Also ripe for change was the notion that business itself was part of the problem -- that a profit motive was necessarily at odds with sustainability.

Click on the list for more detailsThe origin of these beliefs lay in the founders' backgrounds. A chemical engineer by training, Adam formerly worked for the Carnegie Institution's climate science team. Sensing that the glacial pace of climate policy movement would stifle his passion to advance sustainable development, Adam saw entrepreneurship as a more dynamic and effective path. Eric knew from his branding background the power that design and innovation had to reinvent products, categories and industries. So they set out to reinvent how people cleaned, keeping sustainability firmly in mind.

From the very beginning, one of Method's core focuses has been on the long list of questionable chemicals widely used in conventional cleaning and personal care products. From phosphates to chlorine bleach to the variety of antibacterial treatments found in many hand washes and cleaning sprays, Method's formulation team started compiling a list of chemicals that didn't meet their health and environmental criteria, referring to it as the Dirty Ingredients List.

The list and the many chemicals on it are a result of a fundamental shift in formulation philosophy. Method employs the precautionary principle as the first element of our materials strategy: Unless we can be confident of an ingredient's safety, we won't develop formulas using it. This contrasts to a more aggressive approach where potentially hazardous materials are used until a scientific consensus fully establishes the cause, or are used at low enough levels to mitigate any risks.

As a result, many of the materials on the Dirty Ingredients List aren't yet proven to be toxic. Triclosan, for example, is an antibacterial ingredient on the Dirty Ingredients List that has been found to accumulate in the environment downstream of water treatment and has been detected in elevated concentrations in human breast milk. Neither of these findings indicates conclusively a specific toxicity to people or the environment, but we consider them sufficiently worrisome to avoid the ingredient in any formulation.

The benefit of this precautionary approach is that Method avoids the potential liabilities associated with poorly understood materials. Consider the impact that some water bottle makers are dealing with as a result of health concerns around BPA (a component of some plastics). That is a great lesson of the value of avoiding potentially hazardous materials and being proactive in moving to safer alternatives.