Why is the animal rights lobby battling against one of the green consumer movement’s biggest icons? Simon Birch reports.
Have you done your dishes yet? Now I’m not a gambling man, but I reckon there’s a good bet that if you have then you used a squirt of Ecover to help clean your pots and pans. Launched in 1980, Ecover is one of the original trail-blazing green consumer products and it’s gone on to achieve spectacular success becoming an almost essential item in every environmentally-aware kitchen in the country.
The only stain though on Ecover’s otherwise blemish-free record is its ongoing tussle with animal rights campaigners. The trouble centres around Ecover’s failure to sign up to the Humane Household Products Standard. This is the globally run certification scheme that guarantees that neither a finished product nor its ingredients have been tested on animals. The key point of the scheme is that companies undertake to ban the use of any ingredients that have been tested on animals after an agreed date - something referred to as the fixed cut-off date.
Increasing numbers of companies are now signing up to the scheme though Ecover have, so far, refused to sign. According to Michelle Thew, the Executive Director of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, the group that runs the Humane Standard in the UK, “We’d like all companies, including Ecover, to follow the lead of M&S and the Co-op and to sign up and adopt a fixed cut-off date.”
So just what is Ecover playing at and why won’t they sign?
“We share completely the ideals of the BUAV and none of our products have been or will be tested on animals,” says Mick Bremans, Ecover’s Managing Director speaking from Ecover’s factory in Belgium. “The only issue we struggle with is that we try and make the best environmental products. If we accepted a fixed cut-off date it would mean that we wouldn’t be able to improve our products on what we have today.”
They explain further that: “It is a fundamental requirement for our company to understand the impact of an ecological product on the environment to ensure ongoing sustainability and the preservation of the environment for future generations. We do not believe that it is necessary to carry the Humane Household Products Standard to uphold our core values of transparency, honesty and integrity.”
Now this is where the story becomes somewhat baffling as this position only makes sense if Ecover were currently testing their products on animals or were planning animal testing in the future, something which Ecover vehemently denies is the case. However it turns out that Ecover are testing their products on Daphnia (microscopic water fleas), something which came to light last year when the Vegan Society withdrew their stamp of approval for Ecover products.
It’s this testing on water fleas which Bremans claims is preventing Ecover from signing up to the Humane Standard. Michelle Thew rejects this explanation simply because BUAV don’t have an issue with water fleas as they only campaign against tests involving vertebrate animals.
So where does this all leave the shopper?
“There’s no evidence to suggest that Ecover have ever tested on animals so I accept that they’re a genuinely cruelty-free company,” concludes Wendy Higgins from the Dr Hadwen Trust, a charity that funds non-animal research techniques to replace animal experiments. “As it stands there’s no significant difference in company practice between Ecover and any other company who’s signed up to the standard.”
However according to Higgins, by refusing to sign up, Ecover could be keeping their options open for potential future testing on fish, the only animals that would be used for aquatic toxicology testing. Ecover however deny this: “Aside from the fact that we believe that testing on fish is unethical, the tests we complete on Daphnia have an accuracy level of 97%. Testing on fish would only improve these accuracy levels by 3% which would make it senseless.”
It’s unfortunate that Ecover is unable to resolve this issue, as virtually everything else about the company is so commendable. However as Higgins points out, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture: “I would rather put my energy into a targeting companies such as SC Johnson and Procter & Gamble who are prepared to inflict immense suffering on a huge range of animals in order to shift one more air freshener or a new improved carpet cleaner.”
First published in Ethical Consumer 114, Sept/Oct 2008