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Soap’s Opera: Conflict and Resolution on the World Stage

Karen A. Newman

It’s clearly a stretch to compare the current soap industry’s challenges to opera. Yet, in much the same way the great composers understood the tension between good and evil and other opposites, soap and detergent organizations today embrace the power of conflict and resolution, effort and change, in securing a future for their member companies. Industry associations around the world are orchestrating efforts on many fronts on behalf of producers and consumers alike.

The world is a very different place than it was even a century ago, when the modern soap associations were being formed. The German Association of Soap, Perfume and Detergent Experts, SEPAWA, has its roots even earlier, in the 18th century Munich soap and boiler guild. Today, it has grown to 1,200 members involved in the production of cleaning and hygiene products with an eye toward the comfort of everyday lives. We live and work in a world of global economies and businesses, and concerns for the future of the planet, its environment and inhabitants of all species are global, too.

Sustainable Development

Balancing a good quality of life with environmental preservation certainly sounds like an important aspiration. It is what is meant by the term sustainable development, and it is a goal that has been embraced by a number of soap societies around the world. Sustainable development seeks integrated solutions to environmental, social and economic issues.

The International Association for Soaps, Detergents and Maintenance Products (AISE), headquartered in Brussels, released a statement in September 2005 announcing the implementation of its Charter for Sustainable Cleaning. “An industry such as ours whose products are so widely used by both consumers and professional users has an obligation to demonstrate its commitment to sustainable development. It is critical for the long-term survival of our industry,” said Charles Laroche, president, AISE. “I am delighted with the early uptake of the scheme by our members, and, as more join, hope that together we can really walk the talk when it comes to sustainability.”

When the statement was released, six member companies already were committed to the charter, and another 46 had confirmed strong interest in the voluntary program. Companies signing on to the charter commit to continual improvement in their sustainability profiles—as measured against 10 key economic, social and environmental indicators. Progress must be verified independently on a wide range of management practices designed to ensure that sustainability becomes a way of thinking at the company level.

Beginning in 2006, the AISE will publish a full annual report on the 10 key performance measures, including greenhouse gas emissions, waste and water use. These measures will demonstrate the contribution being made by the European detergents and cleaning industry toward international targets for safeguarding the environment. According to AISE, this program builds on successful previous initiatives for sustainability undertaken by the industry—including the code of good environmental practice, the Washright campaign and the Human & Environmental Risk Assessment initiative.

The Soap and Detergent Association (SDA) unveiled its Principles for Sustainable Development in early 2005. The principles symbolize the U.S. soap and detergent industry’s contributions to a better world through health, hygiene and wellness.

“Many of our past and current activities—such as SDA’s partnerships promoting hygiene and health practices—already demonstrate our commitment to sustainability,” said Ernie Rosenberg, president and CEO, SDA, when announcing the initiative. “In the months and years ahead, this statement will help us build a more demonstrable legacy of improving life for our employees, customers, communities and the world at large.” For this group, sustainability means the responsible formulation, production and sale of cleaning products and ingredients.

Protecting Innovation

Chemical regulation is a big concern in all its forms—international, national and local—because some see it as a potential threat to formulation and innovation. The SDA takes potential threats to innovation seriously, including what Brian Sansoni, vice president of communication and membership, SDA, called “ill-conceived chemical control regimes” on which member companies now must focus their attention. The SDA is actively engaged in product defense and protecting members’ freedom to formulate and innovate. The challenge is greater than ever from well-meaning proposals that will ban ingredients in products, but fortunately, Sansoni said, the SDA is better equipped than ever to focus on advocacy and good technical work that will protect the industry from such challenges.

REACH, the European Union program for the registration, authorization and evaluation of chemicals has, according to Sansoni, an international impact on the availability of ingredients that are in many products. He believes the program could have a large effect on SDA members, but reports they still are trying to sort it all out. One big question he and others have is will members still have available the ingredients they need to make the products their customers want?

While generally favorable toward the REACH program, The European Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (Colipa) did express concern about its possible impact on innovation. “The REACH system has to be manageable, effectively protect the consumer and secure the competitiveness of the European Cosmetics Industry and its capacity to innovate. We will continue our constructive dialogue with all stakeholders in the next stages of the decision-making process in order to ensure that the new chemicals legislation can be implemented successfully,” said Bertil Heerink, director-general, Colipa, in a statement issued in November 2005.

Defending Antibacterials

Soap industry organizations have been promoting the importance of hand washing for many decades, but since the first liquid antibacterial hand soap was introduced in 1989, the advocacy has moved from consumer encouragement to the defense of antibacterial ingredients.

The Japan Soap Association (JSA) launched its first nationwide “Let’s Wash Hands” campaign in 1951. JSA merged with the Japan Household Synthetic Detergent Association in 1973 to become the Japan Soap and Detergent Association (JSDA). Today JSDA is the representative organization of manufacturers of soap, detergent, oleo chemicals and other chemical-related products in Japan, and is the official face of the industry vis-à-vis other national and international industrial organizations.

JSDA recorded a boost in sales of hand washing liquids in 1996 during a scare over pathogenic Escherichia coli O-157 infection. Results of JSDA’s 47th Clean Survey, conducted in 2004, concluded that awareness of hand washing practices grew after occurrences of O-157, SARS, bird flu and other infectious diseases. The survey also found a high rate of medicated hand soap use, especially among homemakers with children. “I think we take for granted the public health impact of these products,” said Sansoni. “Hand washing is the most important factor in reducing the spread of harmful germs.” The things most people take for granted are the very things that the SDA and similar associations never can.

The SDA works with the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CTFA) on issues related to antibacterial products. Recently, the two groups told a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel that antibacterial hygiene products play an invaluable role in the lives of consumers. The SDA/CTFA industry coalition presented documented research demonstrating the effectiveness and safety of consumer antibacterial products, according to a press release from the SDA. In documents submitted to the FDA, the coalition also endorsed requiring consumer antibacterial products to meet the same standard of efficacy as professional products. A statement released by the coalition said in part:

“More than 30 years of research has proven that antibacterial products reduce or eliminate bacteria that can lead to commonly transmitted disease. As our presentation to the FDA demonstrated, these products play an invaluable role in the everyday lives of consumers.

“At the heart of this discussion is the fact that every day, people face great potential for the transmission of harmful bacteria to themselves or others. Antibacterial products are proven to control the risks associated with exposure to potentially pathogenic organisms, providing consumers with a valuable extra measure of protection.

“While laboratory studies have speculated about a link between antimicrobial products and bacterial resistance, there is simply no clinical, real-world evidence of increased resistance.”

Building Consumer Confidence

At its annual Information Day in November 2005, AISE called on the European Commission to lead an initiative to build consumer confidence in product safety. According to the organization, risk-based communication generally is regarded as a vital part of the process of informing and advising people about how they can manage potential risks and so use substances and preparations safely, effectively and confidently.

“The members of SDA enjoy a high degree of public confidence in their hand hygiene products,” Sansoni said. “Sharing the risk with them will help build on that confidence. It is part of the product stewardship we’ve been doing for a long time.”

New Agenda Items

Proposed packaging regulations in California and proposed legislation in New Jersey meant to enhance recycling now are on the agenda. The concern is that such proposals, if enacted, could make it more difficult and costly for packaging manufacturers and consumer product companies. “The last thing they want,” said Sansoni, “is unscientific or unnecessary rules that make packaging that much more expensive.”

High production volume chemicals (HPV) have the interest of soap industry associations. The Extended HPV (EHPV) Program launched last November seeks to publish health and environmental information on 574 additional chemicals and increase the breadth of safety information made publicly available for HPV substances. The original U.S. HPV Challenge Program, begun in 1998, sought to collect safety information onover 2,000 HPV chemicals, representing more than 90% of U.S. chemical production by volume.

It seems that as the world gets smaller, business issues grow larger and more complex. Modern soap industry associations help their members navigate the storms and detours on the road to success by monitoring the activities of regulatory bodies, gathering and disseminating data and other information, and representing their member companies at official proceedings. Dramas are resolved, usually without any singing, and the key is orchestrating diverse voices into a harmonious finale.

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The Soap and Detergent Association Turns 80

When the U.S. Soap and Detergent Association (SDA) meets this month in Florida, attendees will join the celebration of the group’s 80th anniversary. They will meet under the theme “SDA at 80: A vital past, an essential future,” a theme Brian Sansoni, vice president of communication and membership, SDA, says “captures for us what our industry has produced and contributed to society over the past century.”

The group has evolved from its start as the Association of Soap and Glycerin Producers of America, in the era before modern detergents. The products its members make have become vital to health and happiness, beauty and comfort. Sansoni points to products consumers can carry with them—portable hand sanitizers and wipes—as very important in helping to keep people healthy. These things would not have been possible without significant innovation in product and packaging design.

The organization was headquartered in New York until five years ago when it moved to Washington, D.C. Early leaders created the Cleanliness Institute, a public service agency, and current leaders are amazed to see how similar the early mission was compared to efforts today. Posters and pamphlets will be on display in Boca Raton, Florida, as part of a History of Soaps and Detergents display commemorating the anniversary. The artwork decorating this page is part of the display. Over the years, member companies have contributed a broad array of innovation in research and development, changing the industry and its needs, but the SDA’s core mission is the same: to effectively represent the industry in a responsible, progressive and science-based manner; to be the preferred source of useful and credible information related to cleaning products and practices.

Today, the SDA employs 20 people and represents about 100 companies. Sansoni said that considering the economic challenges its members have faced over the years, the base has remained fairly stable. “Smart companies realize it is smart to be involved,” he said. “We know what we do, and we work to do it very well. It is important to have a specialized focus.” The SDA’s educational outreach program is handled in-house. The group enjoys a long reputation for good information, said Sansoni. “Companies are looking for efficiency in how they spend their dollars. We do things in-house and they see that we’re doing that for them.” More information is available at the association’s Web site,

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