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Dawn Soap Saves the Environment, By Destroying It

I was recently watching television, and came across a commercial for Dawn kitchen soap. It begins with shots of penguins covered with oil, and tells the tale of how Dawn soap has been used to clean up wildlife impacted by oil spills. The commercial shows a penguin being cleaned, while the voice over explains Dawn cuts through grease, but is gentle. The payoff are shots of penguins, ducks and seals being released back into the water, and concludes with the statement (also branded on the product label) “Dawn Saves Wildlife”.

If you are like me, you have become sceptical of the green washing large corporations have used in marketing their products over the past few years. We are a generation raised on environmentalism. Something which seemed fringe in the 1970s has grown as science and communication have allowed the message to be heard- our world is not sustainable. We are damaging ourselves, and our planet. In the past, marketing of products like soap and cleaners could really only boast one thing- they cleaned. Because of this, companies offered the idea of their products being “new” and “improved.” Suddenly, their products could clean “20% more,” or they could get out the worst of stains.

This marketing model has changed. Now we are told their products are “safe” and “green.” We are led to believe that there is no damage done to ourselves, or the environment by using these products, and we are made to feel good about using them. In fact, a giant leap in how we think is “I am doing something good for the world by using this product,” this is a thought akin to “I am eating healthy by only eating six of these donuts, instead of the full dozen.” I decided to find out how environmental Dawn, and the corporation which owns it, Procter & Gamble, actually are.

Beginning with Dawn, their website offers some great information about how Dawn is giving back, boasting: “For over 30 years, Dawn dishwashing liquid has been an important part of rescuing and releasing more than 75,000 animals affected by oil pollution.” They have also affiliated themselves with two environmental organizations- The Marine Mammal Center and International Bird Rescue. On top of this, Dawn will be donating $1m to these organizations over the next year. Both are recognized groups, doing a great deal of work with animals in the U.S.

Of course, once the curtain is pulled back… we all know what happens, right?

Well, sort of…

P&G, which is the corporation Dawn exists under, earned a net profit of $84.2B worldwide, according to their 2013 annual report. With a massive world market share in beauty, grooming, health care, fabric and home care, and baby and family care, P&G are the top dogs not just in North America, but around the world. From Bounty towels and Gillette razors, to Pampers, Duracell batteries, Febreeze, Crest, Iams  –even Vicks cough and cold products– if you are using day to day items (and let’s be frank, who isn’t?), you are probably using a P&G product.

Procter & Gamble are well aware of how environmentalist view them. In the past, P&G has been pointed at as one of the worst abusers of animals in testing their products. They have recognized this, and have insisted their animal testing is a thing of the past- though there are others who suggest otherwise. Part of the issue is around P&G selling products like Olay and Head and Shoulders in China. Chinese law states that in order for products like these to be sold in their country, they must be tested by their government. This testing is done using rabbits, which includes dropping the test product into the eyes of these animals, and can lead to killing as part of the testing (as claimed by UK based Cruelty-Free International).

According to their own financial report, 30% of P&G’s profits come from emerging markets, this includes India, and China. Procter & Gamble are well aware of the required animal testing, but are clearly willing to ignore this in order to maintain and grow their profits. That being said, a lot of companies are doing the same thing- Unilever, which makes Axe and Dove soap declared 60% of their earnings coming from the same emerging markets. Apparently, animal testing is the cost of doing business, and remaining competitive.

The difference, however, is P&G claim to be environmentally focused. There is a great deal of focus made about their sustainability initiatives, and overall environmental message –something the latest Dawn campaign fits perfectly into. In fact, P&G has been lauded for their sustainability and environmental initiatives by news and information sources including KPMG, Forbes and “green” sources like GreenBiz. In fact, one of the statements made by A.G. Lafley, the Chairman of the Board, President and CEO of P&G in their 2013 Sustainability report was “Reaching our vision of 100% renewable energy and zero waste going to landfill is not going to happen overnight, but we have set short-term and intermediate goals to ensure we make steady progress, which we are doing.”

And how are they making this steady progress? According to their 2013 Financial Report, P&G stated “In March 2013, the Republic of Turkey Ministry of Environmental and Urban Planning notified the Company that it was imposing a fine on the Company based on alleged waste management violations at a Wella facility in Turkey. The Company paid the fine ($790,000) and the matter is currently on appeal.”

Harvesting Palm Oil

But the most damning information about P&G’s environmental and sustainability approach came to light at the end of February, this year. Greenpeace released information about P&G’s sourcing of palm oil, and the effects this has had on the endangered orangutan habitat in Indonesia. Palm oil is used in about 50% of all packaged good, from cleaning products to cookies, body lotion, and lip stick. The Dawn website (which is where we started at, a long time ago) shows two items in the product’s ingredients Sodium; Laureth Sulphate, Sodium Lauryl Sulphates- which are other names for palm oil. Though both sulphates can be sourced from other oils, there is not substantiated proof Dawn is using these other sources.

The problem is, the Indonesian rain forest is being destroyed to collect this palm oil. According to the Greenpeace report, the rain forest is disappearing “at a rate of more than nine Olympic swimming pools each minute, with palm oil being the biggest driver of forest destruction”.

But this isn’t the only problem. Because of this deforestation, the Sumatran tiger is now classed as “critically-endangered,” while both native species of Orangutan are “endangered.” BW Plantation Group, a company which owns the land used for this cultivation is connected to P&G’s supply chain. An investigation by Greenpeace discovered orangutan skeletons on the land, near Tanjung Puting National Park, an area in which orangutans are protected.

While other corporations, like the aforementioned Unilever have made efforts to pull out of Indonesia, and sought out other solutions to the palm oil dilemma, P&G has not.
On March 4, this year, Greenpeace activists were charged with burglary and vandalism, after unfurling giant banners from the two towers making up the head offices of P&G in Cincinnati. While Greenpeace continues its campaign to make the world aware of the dangers deforestation is causing in Indonesia, P&G has done nothing to deny, nor defend their position in this controvery.

So, as Dawn campaigns to be saving the environment, and P&G boasts an environmental and sustainable message, the creation of their products is doing the complete opposite. Sadly, in the case of Dawn and P&G, the adage “corporations can not be trusted” remains.

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