Transparency crusaders wield double-edged sword

Methodology

Transparency crusaders wield double-edged sword

At Method, we believe U.S. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis’ statement that sunlight is the best disinfectant (although we’d argue that our antibac spray cleaners may be a close second).

We believe in the value of transparency. We disclose the detailed composition of our products and the practices used to make them. We do this because we feel that transparency is the basis for authenticity and meaningful commitment to social or environmental change.

In our early years, we disclosed formulation ingredients to anyone concerned enough to call or email us. In 2009 we became more proactive, starting with listing all of our formulation ingredients on our website in a detailed format that specifies each ingredient’s name, its function, and the summary of the health and environmental research completed on it. We followed that with an online sustainability guide showing our product development, manufacturing, and company practices.

And in the past year, we’ve moved to listing all of the technical formulation ingredients on product labels. This level of disclosure has one primary goal: to allow stakeholders to make better informed decisions about Method and the products we create.

However, this commitment to transparency brings its share of headaches too. For one, it adds logistical complexity in the need to synchronize label and formulation updates. The detailed ingredient lists can also sound pretty technical (a few advocates have written to ask us why our products contain “chemicals” like sodium gluconate, which is a safe, biodegradable chelant derived from corn). Not to mention, we’ve likely helped some of our competitors reduce their analysis costs by clearly listing what’s in all of our products.

Photo of bottles in a window provided by Ingrid Maasik via Shutterstock

In the past couple of weeks we’ve been challenged with an additional downside: misreported ingredient listings. The Environmental Working Group, or EWG, just released a guide to cleaning products, giving scores on an A through F scale based on the health and environmental hazards and the level of ingredient disclosure for each product. This is a valuable, laudable concept. We often hear complaints of the deluge of impenetrably confusing green product information. So what could go wrong with an objective party helping to interpret this information?

Plenty, it turns out.

EWG’s guide, despite its noble intentions, was highly misleading. It contained an array of errors – mistaken formulations, incorrect ingredients, outdated products (by years), and most problematically, ingredient ratings that assessed a broad class of materials rather than the actual, specifically listed ingredients. The results for Method included warnings that our products contain classes of ingredients that could cause cancer, risk damage to DNA, don’t biodegrade, or are toxic in the environment.

Were any of these concerns true? No, they were not true and were not relevant to the specific ingredients we use. These health and environmental factors are among the exact criteria that Method reviews when assessing our ingredients, in partnership with EPEA’s materials research team. When these scary ingredient reviews were rolled out, our products were scored anywhere from B (acceptable) to F (highest concern - potentially significant hazards to health or the environment).

So how did EWG get it so wrong?

Primarily, they relied too much on generic, non-specific ingredient information to complete their assessments rather than working with the detailed, technical ingredient names listed on our website or newer product labels. Instead of finding out which surfactants we use in our products and doing the research to understand the specific health and environmental behavior, they listed: “Surfactants,” “F,” “risk for organ damage, toxic to aquatic systems.”

The EWG ratings process resulted in the distribution of misinformation. Very alarming misinformation. What’s more, their ratings were less accurate or informative than what is already publicly listed on Method’s website. If EWG’s goal was to inform shoppers to help them make safer, greener choices, they missed the mark.

Since this guide appeared, we’ve been speaking regularly with EWG. They agreed to remove our product scores and update the information they’re using. We haven’t yet seen our final scores, but we’re happy with their willingness to revisit the ratings.

Primarily, though, this increases our conviction that actively pursuing transparency is the best approach to building broad trust in your brand – even if it means taking extra steps to set the record straight.