One of the things that most of us who work in the non-toxic/sustainable/ethical lifestyle space advocate for the most is transparency.
We want to know what our consumer goods are made out of, where those materials or ingredients came from, and who was involved in the process of transforming those raw materials into a finished product.
In my opinion, transparency is one of the most important aspects of what you might call conscious consumerism—both on the consumer side and the business side.
To me, the reason why supply chain transparency is important seems obvious.
But every once in a while, I get push-back from someone who says it doesn’t matter. For example, on a post about the lack of ingredient transparency in a certain candle brand, I once received a comment that just said: “Who cares?”
So, for those who may have a similar train of thought, who may be wondering what all the fuss is about, I thought I would lay out the specific reasons why I believe transparency in the marketplace is essential for the safety and wellbeing of consumers, workers, and the environment as a whole.
Table of Contents
- The Lack-of-Transparency Problem
- 1. You Deserve to Know What’s In the Products You Buy
- 2. Transparency is a Necessity for People with Allergies & Sensitivities
- 3. Transparency Empowers Consumers to Take Long-term Health Into Their Own Hands
- 4. Transparency Helps Hold Brands Accountable
- 5. Transparency Is Good for Business, Too
- Transparency and Beyond
This article is sponsored in part by Grow Fragrance (that’s an affiliate link). I asked them to sponsor a piece on this subject because, well, there are a lot of topics I believe are very important, and I just don’t have the capacity to write about them without sponsorship! Plus, Grow has always been one of the most transparent fragrance brands, setting an example of what true fragrance transparency can look like. If you’re looking for a replacement for your Febreze, definitely check them out. You can see my full review of Grow here.
The Lack-of-Transparency Problem
Before I argue my case for why transparency in consumer goods is important, let me give you a brief overview of the labeling laws in the United States (and how not transparent they allow brands to be).
Although we are oh-so-slowly making incremental improvements in labeling requirements and chemical regulation, the current state of these types of policies in the United States is… lacking. There are legal loopholes all over the place, both in terms of what chemicals are allowed on the market, as well as what consumers are told (or not told) about those chemicals and whether they are in the products we buy.
Many consumers may think ingredient transparency is unimportant because products would not be allowed on the market if they were unsafe. (“Why should I care what’s in my shampoo? If it wasn’t safe, they wouldn’t allow it on the shelves?”)
Unfortunately, this isn’t true. In fact, according to the EPA, less than 1% of the chemicals on the market have been tested for safety. Under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), countless chemicals are allowed to be “grandfathered in” and legally released into the marketplace without being tested (especially not for long-term effects).
Additionally, even though TSCA is undoubtedly better than nothing, the EPA is relatively toothless under the law and has little power to regulate and enforce the chemicals on the market.
Not only is the chemical industry as a whole pretty lax, but when we narrow in on specific categories of consumer goods, we find more loopholes that allow brands to withhold information from their customers.
The “fragrance loophole,” for example, is a relatively well-known one that permits manufacturers to include over 3,500 different chemicals (some of which are potentially harmful) under the word “fragrance” without listing which of those ingredients are actually used at all. This “fragrance loophole” can apply to a wide range of consumer products, from personal care and cleaning products to cosmetics, candles, and more.
Another loophole that only recently started closing is ingredient labeling on cleaning products (not just fragrances, but any of the ingredients). The state of California passed the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act of 2017 (which went into effect in 2020 and 2021), finally requiring brands that sell general cleaning products and air fresheners to actually disclose what’s in their products.
Grow, however, has been a trailblazer in the fragrance world when it comes to ingredient transparency. From their inception, they have always listed each and every one of their ingredients (and which plant it’s sourced from) right on the product page, in a way that’s actually accessible for customers. (They did this even before the state of California said they had to, simply because they believed customers deserved it.)
There are still no ingredient labeling requirements for certain other cleaning-adjacent products, such as candles. (The only safety labeling requirements on candles have to do with safe burning practices, not ingredients.) Again, Grow Fragrance has always published their full ingredient list for their candles, despite the fact that they are still not legally obligated to do so.
For other categories, like clothing or furniture, it’s still like the Wild West.
The tag on your t-shirt will only tell you that it’s made out of a 50/50 cotton and polyester blend when, in fact, there may be hundreds of different chemicals present. That sofa you’re looking at might give you a few general details about what kind of fabric it’s covered with and whether or not there are chemical flame retardants (thanks again to a California law). But it won’t tell you anything about the glues used to hold together the engineered wood frame, the finishes used on that wood, the isocyanates used to make the polyurethane foam cushions, the stain-resistant PFAS treatment added to the fabric, or the countless other chemicals that were used during the production process.
The good news is that the tide is slowly starting to turn. As I mentioned, states like California have recently passed stricter labeling requirements for cosmetics and household cleaning supplies. The Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act (MoCRA) was passed in late 2022, requiring a little more transparency from cosmetics brands on the federal level.
So, while this slow and steady progress is certainly cause for celebration, there is still a lot of progress to make when it comes to supply chain and product transparency on the whole.
Now let’s move on to the reasons why I think this is so important.
1. You Deserve to Know What’s In the Products You Buy
This first point is an objective one.
I believe that if you are going to spend your hard-earned money on a product—and then you’re going to eat that product or put it on your skin or use it in your home or whatever—then you deserve to know what’s in it.
The way I see it, it’s an issue of informed consent.
As our society has progressed, we have gradually come to see the importance of giving individuals authority and choice over the treatment they accept.
When we receive medical treatment, for example, we are supposed to be given thorough information about the nature of the procedure—including the potential risks and benefits—before proceeding.
In legal proceedings, informed consent—which includes details about the potential consequences of a particular plea—is necessary before a person can legally waive their rights.
More recently, with the rise of data protection laws such as GDPR, companies must obtain informed consent from individuals before collecting, using, or sharing their personal data.
We’ve even gotten used to informed consent when it comes to the food we buy at the grocery store, perhaps even taking it for granted.
In the 1960s, as Americans began to eat more packaged goods, consumers began demanding more detailed production information about the ingredients in the foods they bought. It wasn’t until 1990 when the USDA passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which legally mandated that food companies include a detailed and standardized nutrition facts label on their products. (Yes, there are still loopholes with food labeling, such as with “natural” and “artificial” flavors, but packaged food labeling requirements are still the most stringent compared to other categories of consumer goods.)
Today, food nutrition labels are a given. We’ve come to expect them. And anyone who has ever done any sort of diet (whether because of a specific health issue or simply because of a desire to manage weight) has at some point found them to be a helpful necessity.
Why should it be any different with personal care products, home goods, and textiles? Do we not deserve to be informed about what exactly we are bringing into our homes and putting on our bodies?
Ingredient transparency is one of the few things that gives consumers power and autonomy in an industry where there is very little regulation.
2. Transparency is a Necessity for People with Allergies & Sensitivities
Even though I believe that everyone deserves to know what’s in the products they buy, it’s much more of a necessity for those who have specific allergies, sensitivities, and other health concerns.
Again, we are used to this concept when it comes to food. People with peanut allergies have to read every ingredient label before purchasing a product to see if it contains any peanut ingredients and/or if it was processed in a facility where cross-contamination is possible. Strict product labeling is an absolute necessity for them.
I know I’m repeating myself, but why should it be any different when it comes to consumer goods like cleaning supplies, candles, or clothing? The severity may not be as common compared to peanuts or shellfish, but there are plenty of folks who have negative reactions to a wide range of chemicals in consumer goods—from the dye in clothing to formaldehyde in cleaning products and many more.
These individuals should be able to easily find out if a product contains a specific problematic ingredient and then choose to avoid it.
To take it a step further, ingredient transparency is not just important for people with known allergies to specific ingredients or materials, but also for the countless number of people who have yet to identify what is causing their symptoms.
Those who live with nebulous conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), and even sensitive skin or eczema know that it can be very difficult to nail down what specifically causes their symptoms to flare up. People with these sorts of *mysterious* chronic conditions often must do quite a bit of investigative work, removing or avoiding certain ingredients, materials, or products for a period of time and using a process of elimination to try and figure out what could minimize their symptoms.
These folks cannot do this investigative work without knowing what’s actually in their products. And depending on the severity of the person’s condition, being able to avoid certain ingredients or materials may be crucial for their quality of life.
3. Transparency Empowers Consumers to Take Long-term Health Into Their Own Hands
The importance of ingredient transparency and informed consent is about more than just those who have specific health concerns to manage. It’s also about enabling everyone to have agency over their long-term wellbeing.
Allow me to use food labels as an example again. A perfectly healthy person may not need to avoid processed sugar because of any acute threat to their health. However, that person may want to minimize their intake of processed sugar as a precautionary measure against the development of health concerns later down the road, like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, or even cavities.
The same is true for the ingredients in our consumer goods. For example, you may not break out in hives from the phthalates in the perfume you sprayed on your neck. You may, however, develop cancer or experience infertility if you are exposed to phthalates over long periods of time or at specific periods in life.
These potential long-term health risks are why many consumers are taking preventative measures to avoid phthalates as well as other environmental toxicants such as PFAS, bisphenols, heavy metals, certain pesticides, and more.
The unfortunate truth is that products containing these chemicals are seldom labeled accordingly, and this lack of transparency makes it extremely difficult for consumers to take the precautionary measures they wish to take.
4. Transparency Helps Hold Brands Accountable
Considering the general lack of legal regulation regarding environmental sustainability, worker welfare, and consumer safety, transparency is one of the few ways consumers can hold brands accountable for their stated values.
For example, if a brand says they are “eco-friendly,” “ethically made,” or “non-toxic” in an effort to appeal to a target customer, well… prove it!
Tell us how your products and processes are eco-friendly. Tell us what materials you use, where they are sourced, and what processes are used to turn them into a finished product.
If your products are “ethically made,” then tell us how much your workers are paid and what safety measures and benefits you have in place. Show us the insides of your factories and let us hear directly from the people making our goods. (Grow does this by manufacturing locally and partnering with the Durham Living Wage Project, which ensures workers are paid fairly and receive benefits like healthcare.)
Some brand leaders may think they shouldn’t have to prove their claims—consumers should just trust them.
But unfortunately, time and time again, consumers have been lied to about the products they buy. We were told that smoking cigarettes posed no health risk, despite tobacco companies knowing otherwise. We were told that chemical flame retardants were safe when they weren’t. We were told that PFAS couldn’t cause us harm, but we were lied to once again. Volkswagen cheated on their emissions tests. Boeing hid information from safety regulators.
I could go on and on. Sketchy and misleading marketing campaigns from chemical giants, oil corporations, food and drink manufacturers, and fast fashion brands abound.
Transparency can be an antidote to this problem. It can aid consumers in holding brands accountable for their assertions while simultaneously helping brands build trust with their current and future customers and, in turn, be more successful.
This brings me to my final point.
5. Transparency Is Good for Business, Too
If you’re a business owner or manager reading this, there may be some objections coming to mind. I know that true supply chain transparency and sustainability can be more expensive than the alternative, both financially and in terms of your time and energy cost.
But, with younger generations increasingly voicing their concern for sustainability, ethics, and wellbeing issues, it is becoming more of a necessity for long-term viability in the marketplace.
Transparency can help brands build trust to both win and keep customers. Not only that, but it might save you a real headache! The last thing you want is to end up with a PR nightmare on your hands, with thousands of consumers calling you out on social media for greenwashing, lying, or otherwise acting immorally. If you really mess up, it could cost you billions, as evidenced by recent legal cases where corporations like 3M (for PFAS contamination), Johnson & Johnson (for asbestos in baby powder), and Bayer/Monsanto (for Roundup) were ordered to pay compensation for causing harm to people with their products.
Transparency and Beyond
In my opinion, ingredient transparency is the bare minimum that consumers and governments should require from brands.
As you can see, I believe transparency is extremely important… but it’s only the first step.
After all, transparency alone does not equate to safety or sustainability. (This has been demonstrated by the fact that brands like H&M have scored relatively high on Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index and ReMake’s annual Fashion Accountability Report, despite the fact that they’re not really that sustainable.)
Only with true transparency can consumers and regulating bodies get a real picture of where things stand in terms of chemical safety, environmental sustainability, and worker welfare, and therefore have informed consent. And only when we can actually see that true picture can we continue to move the whole market toward greater wellbeing for everyone involved.
With the sheer power that the private sector holds these days, it’s easy to forget that the companies we buy from work for us. We pay them. We keep their businesses afloat.
And we deserve to know what’s in the products we buy from them.