On Being the Green Gatekeeper at Universal Companies

Lisa Sykes

The outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where only one grew before. –Thorstein Veblen

As an organic gardener, long-time herbivore, and overly analytical health-conscious individual, I’ve always been interested in how to maintain personal and planetary wellness. Being a meticulous vegetarian requires fervent label reading, something I’ve done for over seventeen years. I also have a photographic memory, so once I read an ingredient list, I can often answer questions regarding its contents without reexamining it. This also goes for other facts and statistics (which I conjure at random sometimes) regarding food production, medicinal plants, and oleochemical manufacturing. These slightly idiosyncratic behavioral patterns combined with research experience as a writer have allowed me the ability to tenaciously check—and double check—all of Universal Companies’ “green” products. Oh, yeah, I take this stuff very seriously.

Universal Companies hired me as a technical copywriter in 2007, but I wasn’t in that single role very long. The company needed assistance with its sustainability initiatives, the most important of which was to help customers accurately choose “greener” options by researching our products for them, essentially removing the guesswork normally involved with purchasing eco-friendlier products. The most daunting element of this task was studying cosmetic chemistry for the purpose of categorizing personal care products.

It wasn’t long before my desk was fashioned into a multitude of malformed stacks, virtually unrecognizable from the immaculate look it once boasted, pushing my self-diagnosed OCD to new limits. I examined hundreds of ingredient decks, scrutinized each ingredient therein, and looked into manufacturing standards, third party certifications, packaging, and safety and toxicology. The more I researched, the more questions my quizzical mind developed.

Interestingly, some companies claiming “natural” on their labels listed—for example—PEG-7 glyceryl cocoate alongside organic aloe vera. There are two viewpoints concerning this: Ardent consumer activists will argue that PEGs (polyethylene glycols) or PEG combinations should not be considered natural because they are created in labs, not by nature. However, some industry experts opine that if the ingredient is derived from a natural source, such as coconuts, it should be considered natural. Nevertheless, after studying both perspectives, I surmised that the problem with defining “natural” is the wide spectrum of opinions it evokes.  And this is just “natural”. We won’t even get into “organic”. There are also debates over the definition of “green”. Some believe it’s synonymous with “vegan”, “paraben-free”, or “100% certified organic”. Whew—no wonder why spa directors and owners are traumatized from the very mention of “green”. These waters seem murky and unchartered. But, they’re not. Universal Companies has me on staff to help you. The non-profit Green Spa Network is also a valuable resource; it goes above and beyond, assisting members with everything from guest relations to water management. 

Spa professionals devote themselves to creating peaceful havens for those who seek refuge from everyday stresses. Yet, some of the products and services that we offer are in direct opposition to personal and planetary wellness. Clients want consistency between our practice and our menus, but how do we straddle the myriad of viewpoints that exist, find products that meet all of the requirements, and avoid greenwashing?

It’s implausibly simple. Set standards: State in writing what you’re willing to accept. After months of heavy research and vendor interrogation, I found one perpetual, invariable truth: The means to successfully navigating through hundreds of products touting “earth-friendly” relies on the willingness to read labels, ask questions, and offer a variety of sustainable choices. This will effectively empower your spa’s environmental endeavors while enabling you to graduate from the inquisitive to the authoritative.
For more information on spa greening, contact the Green Spa Network, a tax-exempt, not-for-profit trade association dedicated to bringing sustainable operating practices to the spa industry and to promote the natural connections between personal wellbeing, economic sustainability, and the health of the planet.

2 Responses to “On Being the Green Gatekeeper at Universal Companies”

  1. tonya tweter Says:

    Visit tonya tweter

    what book would you recommend an esthetician to use for skincare label ingredient definitions? I have been searching for a book that is up to date.

    thank you,
    tonya tweeter

  2. GreenExpert Says:

    Visit GreenExpert

    Hi Tonya,
    Excellent question. I recommend A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients by Ruth Winter. It serves as a great quick reference guide. If you’re interested in cosmetic chemistry and safety & toxicology, I have other books I could recommend for those topics.

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