Meet the movement making companies show you what they're made of.

Ingredient transparency: It's about a lot more than chemicals in yoga mats.

Do you remember hearing something about Subway and yoga mats back in 2014?

It's the kind of story that really stands out. In January 2014, health blogger Vani Hari wrote about her discovery that the bread used in Subway’s iconic sandwiches contained a scary-sounding chemical named azodicarbonamide.


Yoga mat: It's what's for dinner. Image by iStock.

Azodicarbonamide is used in commercial bread-making as a dough conditioner, helping to keep bread soft and spongy. It’s also used in some decidedly inedible consumer products — most famously, yoga mats.

Hari’s spark caught fire quickly. Her online petition gathered 50,000 signatures and lots of media attention. A few weeks later, a report titled "500 Ways to Eat a Yoga Mat" came out, showing the more than 400 supermarket bread products also containing azodicarbonamide. The outrage grew, and within a few weeks, Subway caved to pressure, announcing it was permanently removing the "yoga mat" chemical from its bread recipe.

Up next: getting the dog to nama-stay on his own yoga mat.

Interestingly, there is no evidence that azodicarbonamide as a food additive is harmful to human health.

A 1999 World Health Organization report on its effects found almost no effects to animals, except in massive doses. In human subjects, there’s no conclusive data, so the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows its use as an additive in cereal flour and bread-making, along with thousands of other common products.

In the end, all the research in the world wouldn't have mattered. It really boils down to trust and transparency.

Although azodicarbonamide doesn't seem to be harmful, the public believed it was. People felt there was no way to know or agree to the chemicals being put in their food and that Subway was concealing something from them. The only option for Subway to regain consumer trust was to remove the ingredient.

Stories like this seem to happen all the time.

A consumer notices something strange about a particular ingredient in a common product. Companies assure us it's completely safe, but the public doesn't trust them and remains concerned. Eventually the pressure mounts until the company comes up with some fix to regain consumer trust. It's happened before, with "pink slime" in menu items at fast food restaurants, wood pulp in shredded cheese, and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals in makeup and cleansers.

And although those things might be technically "safe," it's clear consumers want to be a part of that decision-making process to select what goes in their food, cleaners, makeup, and other products.

This kitten doesn't know what he doesn't know — but he knows he doesn't like it.

It's clear the public wants to be more knowledgeable about what is in their products and how they are made. But currently, it can be really hard to find that information.

Ordinary people demanding transparency from the products in their lives is a fast-growing movement. To understand why and what they want, I looked to one of the most visible names of the transparency movement — the Environmental Working Group.

The Environmental Working Group, or EWG, knows firsthand how crucial consumer trust is.

Protecting children is a big driver for people in the ingredient transparency movement. Image by iStock.

Started 22 years ago by founders Ken Cook and Richard Wiles, the EWG initially focused its energy on researching the impacts of pesticides on children. But after learning more about pollutants in other areas of modern life, they expanded their efforts to include food, cosmetics, household cleaners — even tap water.

The EWG maintains massive and hyper-detailed databases of products available in the United States. Their food database — containing ingredient lists for most commercially-available foods — is what allowed them to quickly turn around the 500 Ways to Eat a Yoga Mat report. Their world-famous cosmetics database Skin Deep, is so influential that, according to the EWG Deputy Director of Research Nneka Leiba, companies have begun to reformulate their products in order to omit potentially-dangerous ingredients and get higher ratings.

Leiba explains the ingredient transparency movement using body lotion as a symbol of the deep trust consumers place in companies.

"Our relationship with our body lotions is extremely personal. We bring it into our homes, use it twice a day. Over time, it becomes an extension of our personal identity. Our trust in the safety of this lotion is extended to the company that makes it. They can choose to strengthen that with honesty and transparency. Or they can break it by doing the opposite."

In the last five years, massive corporations, including Mars, Kraft, Kellogg's, and Campbell Soup, have voluntarily opened up about the ingredients in their products and removed ones considered unsafe.

When S.C. Johnson & Son Chairman and CEO Fisk Johnson announced his company would disclose everything in their fragrances — an ingredient category protected by government regulation as "trade secrets" — he promised complete openness: "Transparency doesn't mean cherry-picking which things to share and which things to hide. It means opening the door and letting people see what you’re made of."

There are, of course, plenty of financial incentives for companies embracing ingredient transparency.

The market for natural products is continuing to expand every year. Companies selling products with very few ingredients are channeling consumer distrust into constructive purchases they feel good about and feel safe about bringing into their home. It's a growing world of products — encompassing everything from organic food to natural cosmetics to household cleaners to clothes — that's likely to get even bigger as millennials start having families and flex even more of their buying muscle.

The much sought-after millennial consumer in its natural habitat. Image by iStock.

"Consumers are demanding change, voting with their wallets and saying they won’t buy products with ingredients they don't trust," said Leiba. "So large companies like Revlon, Johnson & Johnson, and Proctor & Gamble are removing phthalates, parabens, and formaldehyde-releasing additives from their products — and then advertising it as a point of pride."

Ultimately, the ingredient transparency movement is about trust — and consumers only have a finite amount of it.

The more companies treat the people who buy their products with respect, honesty, and inclusiveness, the more likely consumers are to take them at their word.

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Seventh Generation

Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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