Toxic Ghosts of the Past
BEST PRACTICE RESEARCH
Toxic Ghosts of the Past
— Kat examines the complex relationship between industries and consumers and our deep-seated need for products as constructed by multinationals over decades.
✎ Kat Guerrero
Why do we wear the things we wear, eat the things we eat and live the way we live?
Because some practices, regardless of an individual's identity, geographic location, profession, economic standing or beliefs, are so deeply ingrained into society that we don’t ask questions. While some of these inevitable truths are beneficial to our quality of life, others, like our dependency on certain products and practices deserved to be questioned and reimagined.
We’ll get to the point - we’re talking about the use of products and services like deodorant, fast-food, dishwash, fabric softeners, frozen vegetables and tv dinners. The works. Ideas that are theoretically staples in the home. Items that always find their way into shopping carts, with minimal regard to ingredients, process or impact. Household names like Tide and Dove.
How has the past era of product invention, commodification and marketing evolved to a universal belief that whole product categories are not only beneficial, but a necessity?
It’s an easy answer. Mass corporations who have a hand in the global and domestic market (hello Unilever!) coax the market in different directions by introducing products not out of necessity, but out of strategy, demand and solution. The more products categorised as necessities that a corporation can produce, the more they can maximise their profits. It’s just business baby.
A life of convenience
From a business standpoint, introducing products that make life a bit easier and pleasant makes sense. That’s innovation. To efficiently clean dishes, companies created dish wash. Deodorant took off in popularity to reduce armpit odour. Frozen dinners and vegetables made last-minute meals easy. The entire fast-food industry created cheap, quick food for those in a rush or on the road. For these products, convenience is key. Along the way, some companies and corporations became synonymous with certain products.
A few questions arise: Does living a life made easier by products bring joy? Is it sustainable to engrain products so deeply into our day-to-day? Are the potential effects of products worth it to achieve convenience? Why is there such a focus on the ingredients in our food, but less of a close-up on the products used the household?
Consider the relationship between beauty products and general wellbeing. Some goods that find their way to every bathroom, like shampoo and conditioner, shaving items and perfumes, are a part of life. But when you take the time to understand how products interact with your body, environment and psyche, they take on a different iteration.
The so-called essentials
Shampoo strips the natural oils from hair while conditioner steps in to replace natural with synthetic oils. If one goes without using product for too long, the body is unable to naturally regulate oil levels. Using shampoo and conditioner is a given – we start applying baby-shampoo when we’re young and evolve to more mature formulas as we age. Formulas that cater to hair types and encourage shine, growth or bounce.
According to Eli Halwell, founder of Bumble and Bumble, most ingredients in commercially available shampoo are the same ones used in car and household cleaning products. Ingredients in unnatural shampoos like parabens, sodium chloride and sulfates wash the hair so well that natural protective barriers are stripped. Traditionally, shampoo was concocted from herbs, plants and oils to enhance hair’s oil production and performance and allow the body the space to function naturally. But the demand for squeaky clean hair and product manufacturing that feels good to the touch has led to a culture of aggressive hair washing rather than traditional maintenance.
Soaps follow the same model of providing cleanliness derived from synthetic ingredients. Popular harsh and synthetic soaps can actually strip the dermal microbiome and leave the body unprotected from bacteria. Well-known soap companies, like Dove, distribute commercial detergents being sold under the guise of soap. Proper soap is defined as a combination of oils and sodium hydroxide that cleanse. Dove and their competition fail to meet that definition and include a long list of obscure and questionable ingredients. Some soaps even use animal fat, rendering them not vegan. The fact that a lot of products advertised as soap are synthetic may not be a bad thing – synthetic detergents are known to keep the skin moisturises and retain skin protein structure more than actual soap. But it’s always worth understand how products are defined and what ingredients your skin is absorbing.
As we keep moving through the bathroom cupboard, consider the phenomenon of shaving. Generally, women shave their legs and armpits frequently because it’s a social norm, while men stick to their facial hair. Marketing and products cater to the antiquated idea that to be feminine, one must shave their legs and be sleek. Take a look at any major brand and see how they advertise differently from men to women. Feminine shaving products are advertised as sexy, smooth and quick while men’s products take a more artisanal, rugged spin.
The act of shaving is advertised, while the physical product is often overlooked. In additional to razors (which end up in the landfill, mind you), there is a slew of product lines and companies that provide shaving specific products that can contain ingredients far from natural. The fact that shaving encourages hair growth helps sustain sales for shaving product producers in the long-term. According to market research firm Mintel, shaving is becoming less of a norm, which could disrupt the industry and lead to less manufacturing of shaving products and accessories.
Fabric softener, a chemical blend created to soften your laundry, have literal chemicals being put onto your garments that can leach onto your skin. Using a range of substances linked to carcinogenic properties like benzyl acetate, ethanol and limonene, fabric softeners coat fibres to make them stand upright and feel soft to the touch. Generally, fabric softeners are detrimental to the environment because they introduce silicones and chemicals to waterways. They don’t have a tangible use other than comfort but somehow, fabric softeners have become a common product in the household, regardless of their toxic chemicals and questionable long term effects.
Through the 50’s up to the early aughts, fabric softeners were a household staple. But as we’re becoming more conscious of the products we use and their effect on our health and environment, there’s room to dictate what products are being sold and how they are being manufactured. Millennials in particular are turning the tide on, well, Tide. According to the Wall Street Journal, liquid softeners are declining in popularity and use because millenials are increasingly aware of their impact on their environment and creating chemical-free households.
We could keep going on about the concerns of fragrances, skincare products, and detergent but you get the gist. A lot of products that have become staples in the modern home can be more harmful than helpful, especially when the consumer isn’t assessing the products. The relationship between industries and consumers is complex. As consumers become more conscious and knowledgeable about the products they introduce to their lifestyle, large corporations will have to shift their tired products to meet (ideally) eco-friendly and toxin-free standards.
Here’s where it gets concerning: the seemingly vast amount of products and brands on the market shelves are mainly manufactured and managed by a minuscule group of corporations who collect brands. These monopolies essentially control the majority of the market - so what they sell, we buy. Unilever, a British - Dutch transnational consumer goods company, owns over 400 brands. A fair percentage of these brands include personal goods companies like Dove and Axe. While the companies under Unilever’s umbrella are able to diversify their products and edit their offerings based on customers wants and needs, some products that are already mainstays will continue to be manufactured because of their proven popularity and household dependency on things like dishwashing soap.
A lot of products believed to be necessary for the household and for the self are the result of companies needing products to sell. They can contain toxic chemicals and are often glamorised by large advertising budgets and social norms. In a marketplace that seems to offer a wide variety of products, there is an invisible hand at play dictating what is being sold, how its being marketed and how to hook consumers to buy the products. Time to open our eyes to what we really need…
Co-Design Your Activated Essentials —
Here at Noéma, we’re busy researching the best ingredients - so that we can make the best activated essentials for you, with you. We’re taking a radically new direction in skincare; we use you as the key ingredient.
By collaborating with industry experts such as naturopaths, biochemists, product specialists and formulators, our aim is to create an Activated Essentials product range with the best ingredients, formula and design.
We’re taking applications from our diverse community to contribute to co-designing an essential micro-range of products right for them. Get involved in upcoming events and workshops covering wellness, self-care and design.