Steps Without Footprints

“Concern for man and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors … Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.” —Albert Einstein

Once upon a time, a light dusting of chamomile and rosemary extracts, along with the obligatory dose of aloe vera, made a product look “natural”—at least in terms of label copy. It was also fashionable to identify and isolate the active chemicals in botanicals and explain their function. The market then pursued all natural formulations, then organic products with certification complete with official seals of approval. None of that is remotely adequate now. The carbon footprint and social responsibility, poetically expounded yearly in corporate sustainability reports, are the current gold standard for environmentally sensitive companies.

For those who consider this an issue only for inveterate tree huggers, images collected by NASA’s ICESat satellite1 (launched in 2003) should remind us all that the earth is indeed changing. These images show that the permanent ice blanket around the North Pole has decreased by 40% since 2004. Global warming is here, and everyone is contributing to it.

Carbon footprint applies to individuals as well as corporations. The Ecological Footprint quiz at estimates the area of land and ocean required to support the consumption of food, goods, services, housing and energy, and assimilate wastes. The footprint is broken down into carbon (home energy use and transportation), food, housing, and goods and services.

Since current activities require an extra half earth to sustain, it is incumbent on everyone at every level of activity to take action. Every time a steam jacketed kettle heats up to 75°C or a raw material is shipped overnight from coast-to-coast, the planet has a little less to give. Every time water (often 80–90% of a product) is shipped, the earth suffers. Every bottle, cap, pump, box and label has its impact on the planet.

One way the industry can lessen its impact, and which illustrates the potential of small changes, was provided by T. J. Lin—a regular contributor to GCI magazine’s sister publication, Cosmetics & Toiletries magazine—years ago: low-energy emulsification. Something as simple as heating less water to make an emulsion contributes directly to reducing the carbon footprint of manufacturing. From his first publication in 19782 to a paper delivered at the 2009 Society of Cosmetic Chemists annual scientific meeting, Lin has been a pioneer on advocating environmental awareness in emulsification processes.

Industry Efforts

Counting carbons is a broad-brush way to quantify the sustainability of personal care chemicals. Many companies have a version of this procedure. Stepan, for example, calls its version the “biorenewable carbon index.” It is the biorenewable carbon divided by the total carbon expressed as a percentage. But more than carbon atoms are at stake in the beauty industry. Croda, for its part, has installed a wind turbine at its Hull, U.K., site.

Packaging is a major focus for environmentalists. The basic premise is “less is better,” and whatever packaging there is should at least be recyclable or biodegradable. Some new materials, such as Ingeo from Natureworks and Mirel from Telles, can be composted. The industry is off to a good start in environmentally friendly packaging, but there are still challenges. For example, Mirel’s Web site ( offers this statement: “The rate and extent of Mirel’s biodegradability will depend on the size and shape of the articles made from it. Mirel is not designed to effectively degrade in landfills. Industrial composting facilities may not be available in your geographic area.”


The GoodGuide evaluation of cosmetic products at offers an outline of what consumer groups are now looking for in products and the companies that manufacture them. One of their highest-rated skin care products is Dr. Bronner’s Patchouli Lime Organic Lotion. A GoodGuide rating of 8.6 is a combination of a health rating of 10, environmental rating of 7.6 and society rating of 8.4.

There are extensive details on the GoodGuide rating, and a shortened form of the social and environmental ratings are shown in this column’s sidebar, and the areas included are indicative of how deeply consumers are now willing to delve into the ethical and eco leanings of a company. Once upon a time, a company had to be caught importing from a sweatshop using child labor to get bad press; now, philanthropy and community engagement are scored and posted online.

All the details of the rating procedure are on the Web site, but it should be noted that a big problem arises from the lack of ingredient disclosure, which is particularly bothersome with cleaning products. Of course a similar issue impacts the beauty industry with regard to fragrance ingredients. Fragrances are without a doubt remarkably safe, but the lack of transparency will inevitably continue to fuel distrust from consumer groups. The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) is going to make a list of fragrance ingredients public, but that will not reveal the components in a specific consumer product.

The expectations of consumer groups are constantly expanding, and some of their Web sites pose challenges that make REACH look like a picnic. Almost every company will claim, to some extent, social and environmental sensitivity.

Consider the example of Seventh Generation’s Corporate Consciousness reports ( They are models of social responsibility efforts. The company’s efforts include reducing the carbon footprint of transportation 48% by opening new manufacturing and distribution centers and changing the sourcing of ingredients from distributors to manufacturers for increased control and transparency. The company’s focus, as expressed in these reports, is more on its place in the world than creating profits from operations.

Major companies will continue to boast of their carbon footprint reductions each year, and will provide examples of community engagement. Few will actually live up to all the goals to the extent that a Seventh Generation aspires to, but the bar has been raised, and no one can afford to not move in the direction of placing responsibility to the earth and mankind ahead, or at least equal to, earning profits.


  2. TJ Lin, Low-energy emulsification, JSCC, 29, 3, 117–126 (1978)

Steve Herman is president of Diffusion LLC, a consulting company specializing in regulatory issues, intellectual property, and technology development and transfer. He is a principal in PJS Partners, offering formulation, marketing and technology solutions for the personal care and fragrance industry. He is an adjunct professor in the Fairleigh Dickinson University Masters in Cosmetic Science program and is a Fellow in the Society of Cosmetic Chemists.

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