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Ingredients of Consumer Backlash

Angry customers. No consumer products company or brand wants to be in a position of having to face consumers who have been told that their health and safety has come in second to company profits.

Firms can argue, with scientific studies in hand, that their products are perfectly safe, but once a company is forced to have that conversation, they are already at an uncomfortable disadvantage.

This week, the Twitterverse has served up controversies over cleaners, food, and personal care products. Though consumers often say they are concerned about global issues like climate change and water pollution, what really raises the temperature of debate is issues about products that people put in or on their bodies, or use in their homes. They may hear about this issues first from activist groups – though often, news organizations pick up and amplify the criticisms.

Early in the week, the Environmental Working Group launched its 2012 Guide to Healthy Cleaning. Many, many mainstream cleaning products received grades of D or F. The American Cleaning Institute, a trade group for companies that make cleaning products, responded with a statement decrying “scare tactics” and a link to its own database of cleaning ingredients.

Also this week, Reuters reported on a skirmish in California over genetically modified sweet corn. Around a dozen anti-GMO protesters “stopped trucks from entering or leaving Monsanto’s Oxnard, California-based Seminis for nearly six hours.” Seminis is a seed company owned by Monsanto that has introduced the GM corn seeds.

Meanwhile, Seventh Generation, a green-targeted firm that sells mainly cleaning and paper products, is launching two lines of personal care products –first one for babies and another one for adults. Green ingredients supplier publication newhope360 has a feature on the new lines. The story makes it clear that Seventh Generation is moving into a market space that was created, in part, by recent plans by Johnson & Johnson to remove ingredients that can release 1,4-dioxane or formaldehyde from its products.

This week also brought news of a backlash about a backlash. Meat supplier Beef Products, Inc. is suing ABC News for a whopping $1.2 billion in a defamation lawsuit. The company says it was defamed by ABC reports about its “lean finely textured beef.” News reports had borrowed the unlovely term “pink slime” from a USDA employee, and Beef Products says that news programs falsely said the product was unsafe.

None of these controversies are particularly  new, but they are clearly not simmering down, either. The article about Seventh Generation’s products made several mentions of green chemistry and bio-based chemicals. Advocacy organizations know that consumers are likely to adopt the precautionary principal when choosing food, cleaning products, and personal care items. Suppliers to these industries will need to closely study the ingredients of consumer backlash.

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