The end of July. School is out, the beach is beckoning, and North America is just emerging from a massive heatwave. OK, so its grey and chilly in much of Northern Europe right now, but for many of us, summer is truly here. And like all self-respecting sunworshippers, we're all too aware that this means it is time for sunscreen. The question is, though, what is the responsible choice among the myriad brands in the market? And what counts for responsible when it comes to sunscreen anyway?
Over at the Ethical Consumer website, help is at hand. The UK-based magazine publishers and all-round ethical shopping wonks produce ethical buying guides for just about everything. Their buyers guide for sunscreen is available free and includes probably more information than anyone could possible want about how the various brands stack up against a wide array of social and environmental issues. Top of the list of things to avoid are potentially harmful chemical ingredients, including various parabens and cinnamates. Not to mention one of the more controversial ingredients around, nanoparticles. These are widely used in sunscreens, but have raised concerns around safety and environmental issues. Of course, the most responsible sunscreen is one that actually works. Natural, non-chemical ingredients are all well and good, but not if they don't guarantee you the protection you need ... or has been the case in the past, do not actually provide the SPF protection they claim on the package. With the EU tightening up regulation a few years ago, some of the "natural" producers have struggled to comply and stay in the market.
That said, unsurprisingly for an organization that has always held multinationals in low regard, the top-ranked brands according to Ethical Consumer are still largely small-scale natural product specialists, such as Yaoh organic hemp sunblock, and Green People sun lotion. Among the more well-known international brands, Clarins, Malibu, and Nivea are among the best scorers, though it has to be said that they all come in at less that 10 out of 20 on Ethical Consumer's scoring system. But this is mainly because the sunscreens are not just being ranked on their ingredients and other product-specific qualities. Ethical Consumer has always taken a more holistic view of a product's ethics, taking into account the producing company's policies and practices on a wide range of issues including employee rights, sustainability reporting, political involvement, and much more besides. In fact "product sustainability" is only one of five categories that a product is ranked on, the others being "environment", "animals", "people" and "politics". In essence, they evaluate the brand, not just the product.
Such a wide ranging assessment may not be for everyone. Some people just want to rate the product, not the whole corporate culture. In the past, you'd just have to stick with the final assessment given by the company doing the rating, but organizations like Ethical Consumer are now providing more sophisticated tools. We love the way they provide a customizable scorecard online so that you can quickly and easily prioritize the ethical issues that matter to you and de-prioritize those that don't just by using the sliding scales. And when you do, the differences between the sunscreen brands turn out to be more driven by company factors rather than simply product-specific factors. That's not to say these company factors aren't important. But clearly, not everyone is going to care as much about all the same issues. So customization is a technique that really works in ethical product ratings.
Where the sunscreen ratings don't quite convince though is on the real basics. People buy sunscreen to get protected from harmful UV rays. An ethical sunscreen has to be one that provides superior protection. But none of the more than 20 categories ranked by Ethical Consumer appear to include an assessment of actual performance. Maybe they just assume that if the products meet the legal standard then they are all of acceptable standard. But as far as we're concerned, ethical performance is not just about the ethical add-ons. It's also about doing the job the product is designed to do - and doing it well. Marketers refer to this as the "core" and the "augmented" product. If ethical evaluations pay no heed to the core product benefits, then they miss out on half the picture. Its like lying in the sun and using sunscreen on everything except your most sensitive areas. Sure, you're taking precautions - but you're still gonna get burnt exactly where its going to hurt the most. Ethical rankings need to get the essentials covered.
Photo by Pedro Moura Pinheiro. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence