Johnson & Johnson recently made headlines when it announced it will begin to phase out toxic chemicals like formaldehyde from its products—beginning with its baby products. It’s a good first step, but are they going far enough? What will happen with the rest of the industry? We spoke with John Repolgle, CEO of the leading sustainable household and personal care company Seventh Generation, to hear an inside perspective on the issue. Seventh Generation, long known for its cleaning and household products, introduced a new line of baby personal care products this spring, and is launching an adult personal care line now.

You wrote an interesting response when Johnson & Johnson announced its plans to phase out chemicals of concern in its baby products. You’ve said they can go farther, and faster. Can you explain?

It’s absolutely a good thing that J&J is going to reformulate the chemicals of concern in their formulas. That’s terrific. It’s a great step in the right direction. But it does raise a bunch of questions. I start with J&J’s credo; the credo guides J&J, and their credo challenges them to “put the needs and well-being of the people we serve first.” If that’s really the case, and they are putting the needs and well-being of the people they serve first, why is it going to take them years and years to formulate these out of their products? It isn’t that difficult to get those chemicals out of their products. Other companies have done it, and they [J&J] have done it in Europe to accommodate the REACH standard. So, why will it take years to do, especially on the baby products? Secondly, why are they setting a double standard for themselves? Why are they reformulating the chemicals of concern out of the baby products, but they’re not going to the same extent on their adult personal care products. It’s a good first step, but it is a half-measure, and it raises perhaps more questions than it solves.

For the adult products, I thought that was happening on a longer timeline. But you’re saying it isn’t even going as far in terms of removing chemicals?

That’s correct. They’ve been very clear about removing certain chemicals from the baby products, such as parabens. But they’re going to continue to formulate with parabens for the adult personal care products.

In Europe, REACH (government regulation of chemicals) has driven change. What pushed J&J to change?

The U.S. standard is a lower standard than the European standard, so, frankly, J&J is in compliance today. It’s not regulation that’s leading them to do this. They’re actually doing it for the right reasons, which is to protect human health and well-being, and they’re doing it under some pressure from industry groups who are particularly concerned with some of the chemicals they have in their baby products. So J&J has done this voluntary self-regulation which is applaudable, and yet they are not formulating to the standards that they formulate to in Europe.

Do you think that other large personal care companies will follow?

Consumers are increasingly aware of these chemicals in their personal care products. The natural segment of personal care is the fastest growing—and has been for over ten years. There are phenomenal brands out there that are formulating products without these chemicals, and more consumers are choosing them. So I think the law of the marketplace will lead these companies to begin to strip the chemicals out of their care products. I don’t think it’s going to be the hand of government or regulation, but I do think some of these consumer advocacy groups will increasingly put pressure on them, whether it’s the Environmental Working Group or the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. They’re both doing a really good job about raising awareness about what goes into these products.

In terms of regulation, can you talk a little bit about what the Safe Cosmetic Act would do, and whether you think that would go far enough in offering consumer protection?

We’re big proponents of the Safe Cosmetic Act. It will certainly help—it will be a step in the right direction. I think it goes a long way to helping safeguard human health and really taking the guesswork out for consumers. We’re ever hopeful that that’s going to create a new way to protect consumer health and well-being.

For Seventh Generation, have you faced any challenges as you formulate products? Can you explain why removing those chemicals might be challenging for other personal care companies?

It’s challenging on three levels. One, it’s challenging on a cost level. I would imagine that is the number one reason companies aren’t moving from synthetic, petroleum-based ingredients to natural-based ingredients. There is a big cost difference. Second, it’s harder to formulate. The stability is more challenging; it can be done, but it takes more time and science to get there. Third, these synthetic chemicals are readily available everywhere, whereas the natural ingredient supply is under development. So, I think there are all sorts of reasons that companies can point to as to why they haven’t done it. But really, truthfully, the bottom line is it’s a cost game, and they’re protecting and padding their margins. They make tremendous margins, and it is much cheaper for them to take the shortcut on human health with these chemicals than it is to use the natural ingredients.

Is Seventh Generation planning to expand the line of personal care products that you offer?

We have. We just launched a full, natural baby care range to go along with our diapers and wipes, which is terrific. That rolled out in April. We’re just now also launching a full adult personal care range that includes everything from sustainably-sourced palm oil bar soap to body wash, to body lotion, to facial towelettes. We are very much in the personal care business today.

Over time, as other companies move toward more natural and safer products, how will Seventh Generation continue to stand out?

We’re coming up on our 25th year of being a business rooted in human health and well-being, authenticity, and transparency. We were the first, for example, to put full ingredient disclosure on our labels in household cleaning. It’s something that’s not required of the industry, but we provided, and many others followed. We are going to continue to stand out by staying true to our core principles of being a vanguard of human and environmental health, by driving transparency, and by being a pioneer in the industry in pushing for a higher standard.

If consumers are concerned about environmental health and their own safety, what actions should they take?

The first thing to do is to learn a bit more about it. There are a couple of easy ways to do it right now. There are two organizations that provide really simple, easy-to-use information. One is GoodGuide. Consumers can research their products on GoodGuide, which has rated all your products and will give you a red/yellow/green rating and tell you what’s in it to potentially be concerned about, and what alternatives consumers could choose that might be safer. That’s a great place to start. You can check out ingredients more deeply on the EWG website as well. So there’s some resources out there, and that’s a good place to start for consumers.

Main photo credit: chadk/Flickr; secondary image credit: Seventh Generation