This one has bothered me for a while now.
I honestly can’t tell you why, but for some reason I’ve had a bad feeling when it comes to Ecover and Method cleaning products for years (although originally two separate companies, Ecover acquired Method back in 2012, so they’ve been two branches of the same company for a while now). In even the least eco-conscious of households I’ve often spotted a bottle or two of their products around; they’re sold in our larger supermarkets here and I think often people will go for what they believe is an environmentally friendly option if it’s right in front of them. I remember distinctly why I never liked Method, I felt like nothing could claim to be natural whilst also being brightest, least natural shade of purple out there. It seemed unnecessary and I just didn’t buy it. Ecover, I don’t know. I’ve just always had a weird feeling about them, suspecting something but without any actual evidence for it.
It’s also no secret to anyone who knows me that my personal allegiance lies with Bio-D for eco-friendly cleaning products and Cleaning Essentials for the DIY, zero waste option, so I do know that I’m biased to a certain extent (my suspicion does also pre-date discovering either company). I wrote about Bio-D way back when this blog started when I found them at my favourite eco-friendly dry cleaners, and later down the line became a brand ambassador for them. This doesn’t mean I’m sponsored by them, but it does mean that I’ve spent a lot of this year helping them develop their ranges, testing and talking about products, brainstorming ideas and discussing potential future lines they might expand into. I’ve been to their factory in Hull, where they make their whole hypo-allergenic range in house, and I’ve seen first hand how everything is made and what goes into it.
It was on one of these trips that I learned about Ecover.
When talking about Bio-D ingredients I got to thinking about Ecover and Method, the other big alternatives in the UK, and so I did a little digging on their history.
The Synthetic Scandal
Back in June 2014, Ecover announced it would move away from palm oil and switch to using oils produced by synthetic biology company Solazyme Inc. (SZYM) via synthetically engineered algae which feed on sugar. Synthetic biology, in a nutshell, is the practice of artificially constructing genetic material such as DNA in order to create new forms of life or attempt to ‘reprogram’ existing organisms, such as yeast and algae. Synthetic biology companies claim that they can now generate millions of new organisms per day, in a set of engineering techniques that is completely new and unregulated. It is, essentially, the cleaning worlds version of the GM debate. In response to Ecover’s announcement 17 national and international consumer, environmental, women’s health and farming groups (including Friends of the Earth, Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union, Women’s Voices for the Earth, Clean Production Action, Organic Consumers Association, and ETC Group) wrote an open letter calling on Ecover/Method to cancel plans to use oils and other ingredients derived from synthetic biology. Here are the key points:
“It is our view that, given the significant gaps in knowledge, it is premature to bring synthetic biology and its products into commercial use. There are no developed or agreed protocols for adequate biosafety assessment of SMO’s [synthetically modified organisms]. Existing risk assessment, traceability and containment measures for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may be inadequate for novel organisms produced through synthetic biology. There are also significant concerns about the impact of such highly novel organisms on ecosystems should they escape and on the livelihoods of tropical farmers and on biodiversity”
“We do not believe that engineered algae fed on sugarcane are a ‘green,’ ‘ecological’ or ‘sustainable’ solution to the problems of palm oil use. While we share your concerns about the forest destruction associated with palm oil (in this case palm kernel oil), we do not regard a switch to Brazilian sugarcane feedstock to be the solution. As you are no doubt aware, sugarcane production on Brazil’s fragile Cerrado eco-region is associated with significant biodiversity loss and CO2 emissions from both land use change and burning of the bagasse, as well as poor working conditions that can resemble slave-labour practices. The rapid expansion of land devoted to growing sugarcane in Brazil is moving back the agricultural frontier, driving forest destruction into the Amazon. It is our understanding that Ecover and Method could have chosen to source the relevant oleochemical ingredients from coconut oil, thereby supporting small and sustainable coconut farmers and not requiring the use of synthetically modified organisms.”
After the scandal came to light Ecover put algal oil trials on hold, and ethical consumer reports that no commercial products ever came from it. Ingredient wise, we’re safe from SMO’s with Ecover. However in the press release that followed the paused trials Ecover also point blank stated “Any allegations that we are using synthetic biology are untrue”, even though they definitely were true, as well as making some other claims that seem less than solid including the ethics of Brazilian sugar and coconut oil, the control of synthetic organisms and the company’s transparency. (For more on that, read this article for in depth analysis).
And generally, they’re still not the best option out there.
A Taxing Issue
As Ethical Consumer puts it:
‘Ecover still doesn’t score as highly as some of the other alternative companies in our ratings. It gets our worst rating for Environmental Reporting as it does not have quantified future targets, and it is owned by Skagen Holdings Limited, a company incorporated in Guernsey, considered by Ethical Consumer to be a tax haven.
On the other hand, the company is continuing its environmental pioneering work in several ways. It avoids optical brighteners, synthetic fragrances or petrochemical raw materials on the basis that they are poorly degradable and often poisonous for water life. It has also been working on innovative environmental packaging alternatives – it makes bottles using 75% plastic from sugar cane, and three years ago, it launched a bottle made partly from plastic reclaimed from the oceans.’
It’s not exactly a clear cut issue, but both Ecover and Method come out with worst ratings for environmental reporting, middle ratings for toxics, palm oil policy and supply chain management, and worst ratings for anti social finance. Skagen Holdings Limited, Ecover/Method’s owner, is incorporated in Guernsey, which at the end of last year was accused of being ‘part of the largest tax evasion network in the world‘, and was heavily implicated in the Panama Papers scandal. With it’s parent company incorporated in a tax haven, it received Ethical Consumer’s worst rating for suspected tax avoidance strategies.
So overall, although the algal oil issue seems to have been dropped, Ecover’s history of transparency both in its product development and the handling of its finances makes me sceptical. If a company claims to be green and ethical, I can’t help but feel there should be more transparency. Especially if you’re large, I want to know you’re paying your taxes. I wonder if, despite the good steps they have taken, Ecover/Method could be considered greenwashers, putting more effort into their image than actually being concerned for their environmental impact or ethics (or the people said ethics may be screwing over when you don’t pay your taxes). They’re still doing some good, don’t get me wrong, but more often that not ethics isn’t a black and white issue, and I would like to see steps taken by the company to be more transparent in their finances and in their product ingredients.
For now, my mistrust stays.
Until next time, stay magic y’all.