Consumer shopping behavior has changed as more people search for companies that practice ethics and sustainability. By choosing to buy ethical products, you can benefit from:
- Minimizing harm to the planet, animals, or humans;
- Supporting local communities;
- Indulging in healthier products;
- Creating higher expectations for companies.
However, finding ethical brands and products may be tougher than expected. Many brands greenwash their products to try to promote green practices without actually doing so. To understand if a brand is ethical, look to see if they:
- Ethically source their ingredients;
- Ensure all production employees are safe and paid fairly;
- Limit the environmental and social impact of the ingredients.
One way to avoid greenwashing and ensure you are buying ethical products is to know and understand which ingredients are considered unethical. All products are required to list their ingredients on the back of the packaging according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Below, you will find common unethical ingredients found in products across many industries. By knowing what to avoid, you can make more informed decisions about your shopping habits.
Many skincare products contain mica which helps illuminate and brighten skin and gives the heavily sought-after “glow” effect. Natural mica is a mineral found in granite, crystals, and other rocks, and is often ground into a powder so it can be easily added to products. Mica is often found in skincare products including:
While mica itself is not considered an environmentally-destructive ingredient, the way it’s typically sourced is considered unethical. About 60% of the world’s mica is mined in India, in the Jharkhand and Bihar region, which are known for their high poverty rates. High poverty levels drive children into the workforce, many of which work in mica mines even though child labor is illegal under Indian law. Documentaries on mica mining found that children as young as six years of age are working in mica mines, with no protection whatsoever. According to the documentary, illegal mines are run by cartels that make huge profits while child and adult workers don’t make much at all.
Consumers can avoid buying products made with unethical mica by researching brands that source mica ethically from transparent supply chains or use alternative ingredients. By researching the best skincare products, you can assess whether companies ethically mine mica or not. To do this, look for businesses that purchase mica from fair-trade operations. Additionally, you can also look for products that use synthetic mica made in laboratories.
Toiletries often include thousands of ingredients, many of which can be harmful to people. It’s important to note that your skin absorbs nutrients, chemicals, and other ingredients from your personal care items, so it’s crucial to understand which chemicals are potentially hazardous.
Triclosan is used as an antimicrobial in soaps, toothpaste, mouthwash, and deodorants. Triclosan is classified as a pesticide and has been known to affect the body’s hormone systems. It can also irritate the skin and eyes and is toxic to aquatic animals. The FDA banned triclosan in 2017 from products, however, some companies still use the ingredient.
Phthalates are mainly used as a dissolving agent in personal care products and can be found in soaps, shampoos, hairsprays, and nail polishes. These chemicals can also be listed under the term “fragrance,” so it can be beneficial to research the brand to see if they use phthalates in their products. While there are very few studies on the effects of phthalates on humans, there are several negative health effects on animals like:
- Early-onset puberty;
- Interfering with the male reproductive tract development;
- Interfering with the natural functioning of the hormone system;
- Causing reproductive and genital defects;
- Lower testosterone levels in adolescent males;
- Lower sperm count in adult males.
Sulfates are another unethical ingredient found in shampoos, laundry detergent, and toothpaste which create the lathering effect. Typically, these ingredients are listed as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). While sulfates are not inherently bad themselves, their origins are often controversial. Petroleum-derived sulfates are considered unsustainable, as they are potentially hazardous to aquatic life. Additionally, petroleum products are often associated with climate change, pollution, and greenhouse gases.
Palm oil is a common ingredient in makeup used for moisturizing and texturizing. The oil helps lipstick hold its color and keeps it from melting in high temperatures. While there are many benefits to using palm oil, some people argue that the production of palm oil is dangerous and has negative effects on the environment. Palm oil is extracted from African oil palms which reside in rainforests. This means that large chunks of rainforests are being cleared to make room for palm oil plantations and to meet consumer demand. Large deforestation practices have negative effects on the environments like:
- A loss in overall biodiversity;
- A decrease in natural habitats for animals;
- An increase in carbon dioxide emissions.
Additionally, people who work on palm oil plantations are often exploited. Research by Amnesty International showed workers faced dangerous work practices, forced labor and child labor, and gender discrimination. Children as young as eight years old have been seen working on the plantation, even though laws prohibit children from working in dangerous environments. As the plight of palm oil harvesters came to light, many makeup brands are choosing to forgo palm oil for more ethical ingredients, such as coconut oil and jojoba oil.
Animal Ingredients in Supplements
Many people take supplements to ensure they are getting their necessary nutrients. Even though most ingredients are plant-based, some supplements come from animals. Those ethically opposed to consuming or using animal products, or concerned about animal welfare may not realize that animal products enter more than just the food supply. Common animal ingredients include:
- Gelatin, which comes from boiling hooves, stomachs, and tissue lining of various animals;
- Magnesium stearate, a fatty acid found in pork, butter, chicken, beef, fish, and milk;
- Lanolin, which comes from sheep;
- Bee pollen, which is often used in energy supplements and workout aids;
- Carmine, a food dye that comes from beetles;
- Caprylic acid, derived from goat, sheep, or cow’s milk, is used as a filler;
- Lipase, an enzyme derived from calf and lamb tongues.
Check whether a supplement uses one or more of these ingredients by reading the ingredients listed on the back of the product container. If you are still unsure, research the brand’s website.
Cleaning and Household Products
Many of the chemicals found in common household products can potentially cause harm to people who use them. Cleaning products are not legally required to have listed their ingredients on the product or packaging, which can make it hard to know what’s inside. Additionally, manufacturers may be less inclined to stay away from toxic chemicals in pursuit of the best product on the market. It’s important to know the ingredients in cleaners because some people may be intolerant to certain chemicals. Some common ingredients to look out for include:
- Ammonia: This chemical is found in polishing and glass cleaners because it doesn’t leave streaks. Ammonia can cause respiratory issues and is dangerous when mixed with bleach. For a safer choice, vodka can be used as a streak-free glass cleaner.
- Chlorine: This ingredient is found in scouring powders and toilet bowl cleaners. Long-term exposure to chlorine has been known to cause respiratory irritation. Baking soda is a natural alternative that can have the same scrubbing power as chlorine.
- Sodium hydroxide: Also known as lye, sodium hydroxide is found in oven cleaners and drain openers. This ingredient can cause surface burns on your skin, as noted by most of the label warnings on the products. To avoid using this chemical, use baking soda and vinegar for a natural cleaner, or a snake drain for clogs.
- 2-Butoxyethanol: This chemical gives window cleaners their sweet scent. It can be harmful if swallowed, inhaled, or makes contact with the skin. A safer choice is to clean windows with vinegar and newspaper or a lint-free cloth.
- Formaldehyde: This chemical is found in many cleaning products like dishwashing liquids and fabric softeners. Exposure to large amounts of formaldehyde may be linked to certain types of cancer. This chemical is mainly used as a preservative and does not have a natural alternative.
While chemical cleaners can effectively clean up everyday messes in your household, it can be healthier and more cost-effective to make your own cleaners. It’s important to note which chemicals can and cannot be mixed to avoid dangerous toxins.
Some food production practices are deemed unethical. Cocoa production, for instance, has been a source of controversy for decades. According to the Washington Post, many West African cocoa farms use child labor to harvest the beans. In 2015, more than two million children worked on cocoa farms and engaged in dangerous labor, many of them as young as five years of age. While many companies have tried to change their practices, some are finding resistance because they cannot identify all of the farms where their cocoa comes from.
Other popular foods that raise ethical concerns include:
- Bagged salad;
- Nut butter;
To avoid buying food that supports these practices, look for labels that include:
Additionally, if you are unsure which foods are unethical, be sure to research the producer.
Finding out that your cleaning product, favorite food, or makeup brand may be unethically sourced can be overwhelming. However, by researching the manufacturer and understanding the impact of your buying choices, you can make more informed decisions about the products you choose to buy.