Last updated: February 2017
The Ecover Controversy
In the past, Ecover has been subject to a number of targeted campaigns over animal testing and its use of synthetic biology. What is the latest on the story?
A tale of algae
Ecover started in 1979, an environmental pioneer that aimed to make washing powders that didn’t contain phosphates. When discharged into waterways, phosphates caused a process called ‘eutrophication’ – providing too many of the nutrients beloved of algae, causing it to bloom out and suffocate all other living creatures. Phosphates are now banned in washing powders in most of the world.
As it started as an anti-algae company, there is some irony in the fact that algae was at the heart of the controversy that rocked Ecover in 2014. Ecover decided to try to replace the palm oil in its products with a very similar oil produced by algae. The algae was genetically engineered to increase its yield, using a technique that some people call “synthetic biology”.
This prompted stern criticism from a coalition of environmental NGOs, led by Canadian anti-GM group ETC, and Ecover dropped the whole thing. The algae oil idea never got beyond a trial, and no products were ever commercialised from it.
Animal testing controversies
This wasn’t the first time that Ecover had aroused campaigners’ ire. In 2007, it had admitted that it tested on Daphnia – microscopic water fleas – and on farmed rabbit blood. Controversially, Daphnia are not counted as animals under European law. However, Ecover assured us that it no longer tests on either. It has been Leaping Bunny-certified by Cruelty Free International since 2012, which means that it does not use any ingredients that were tested on animals after a fixed cut-off date.
Ecover’s overall rating
Although these specific complaints of campaigners are now resolved, Ecover still doesn’t score as highly as some of the other alternative companies in our ratings. It gets our worst rating for Environmental Reporting as it does not have quantified future targets, and it is owned by Skagen Holdings Limited, a company incorporated in Guernsey, considered by Ethical Consumer to be a tax haven.
On the other hand, the company is continuing its environmental pioneering work in several ways. It avoids optical brighteners, synthetic fragrances or petrochemical raw materials on the basis that they are poorly degradable and often poisonous for water life. It has also been working on innovative environmental packaging alternatives – it makes bottles using 75% plastic from sugar cane, and three years ago, it launched a bottle made partly from plastic reclaimed from the oceans.
The wider picture
For those who are concerned about the use of synthetic biology to modify algae, the story does not end with Ecover.
The same oil that Ecover was considering using is used by Unilever in soaps. And the synthetic biological manipulation of algae may become a much bigger story in the future, as algae has long been of interest as a potential biofuel. The theory is that it could produce far more fuel on less land than any other plant, giving it the potential to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As yet this is just a research project, and work on it hasn’t been going well. However, if it ever does get off the ground, it may raise significant dilemmas for some environmentalists.