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Environment

Does outing corporate polluters create change?

The Body Shop, Versace and dozens of other companies have been accused of including toxins and polluting microplastics in their products. How effective are name-and-shame campaigns in forcing companies to go green?

They're hiding in your makeup, your shower gel and even your toothpaste. Small fragments of plastic are included in hundreds of products that we use each day. These microplastics are so small, that they easily pass through sewage treatment plants and go on to pollute lakes and oceans.

"The magnitude of it is really shocking," said Bettina Taylor, a marine biologist with BUND, the German branch of Friends of the Earth. "Microplastics are in so many products. You don't even feel that there are small plastic pieces in there. Most people don't look at the list of ingredients when they buy a product."

Cosmetic giants like Clinique, Maybelline and Yves Rocher use microplastics as exfoliants, filling or binding material in their products. But scientists are increasingly concerned because their studies are starting to show that these particles harm the environment, animals and human health.

Going public with the dangers

Marine animals accidentally eat microplastics, which often carry toxins. Many plastics affect the animal's hormones, disrupting physical processes like reproduction. When animals that have ingested plastic are eaten by human beings, we also eat the plastic particles stored in their tissue.

"We already know a lot of health problems that humans have come from the increased amount of plastic in our lives," Taylor said. She added that these health issues often come from drinking water from plastic bottles. "But when we ingest the plastic, we can assume that this also disrupts physical processes."

Screenshot of BUND's list

BUND's list of products containing microplastics names the products, manufacturers, and type of plastic

That's why she and her colleagues decided to take action by publishing a list of all the products they could find containing microplastics. They scoured ingredients lists, looking for the two plastics most often used in cosmetics: polyethene and polypropylene.

The list, which was published in German, has received enormous attention from consumers and the cosmetics industry. Empowering consumers to make informed decisions was Taylor's main goal.

"As an environment protection group, our goal is to change things. But we can't do that without the public. We want people to know what is happening, what they are buying and we want to help them change that," Taylor said.

"By purchasing certain products and avoiding others, we can have an influence on the industry," she added.

Cosmetic companies react

According to Taylor, there has been a lot of reaction from the public. Across Germany, people have been reading ingredient lists on their toothpaste, face wash and other products and emailing BUND with the names of additional products which contain microplastics.

Some of the companies named on the list react by saying microplastics do not cause problems.

Body Shop branch in Birmingham from the outside

The Body Shop, a company that markets itself as environmentally aware, was included on BUND's list

Eleven products from The Body Shop, a company which claims to promote sustainability, were included on BUND's name-and-shame microplastics list. DW made several attempts to interview representatives from The Body Shop, but the company declined. They opted instead to send a written statement via email, in which they said that only three of their facial scrubs contain microplastics. They explained the microplastics were included because of "safety concerns for the face" and added that these plastics help ensure that "the scrubs would not irritate the area around the eye." The company says they intend to replace the "microbeads in these products with environmentally friendly and still safe alternatives by 2015."

Toxic children's clothing

This tactic of naming-and-shaming has been used by other conservation groups, including Greenpeace International. The environment protection group released a report this month naming eight luxury brands - including Versace, Dior and Dolce & Gabbana - that produce children's clothing and footwear using hazardous chemicals.

Children's clothes hanging in a shop

Some children's clothes produced by luxury brands contain chemicals with hormone-disrupting properties

Greenpeace tested their products in a laboratory and discovered hazardous chemicals such as perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), often used for making materials stain- and stick-resistant. Greenpeace representative Pierre Terras explained that these chemicals are also known to disrupt hormonal function in the human body and are slow to biodegrade.

"When we wash these clothes as consumers, we release those chemicals, creating pollution," he told DW in an interview. "It's a never ending circle. That's why we're asking these brands to stop this nightmare and to detox."

Naming and shaming an effective method

Greenpeace International is demanding toxic-free fashion and has been protesting at Milan Fashion Week. When the event opened on Wednesday (19.02.2014), Terras climbed the cupola of Milan's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele as an act of protest.

Grenpeace portests at the Milan Fashion Week 2014

Greenpeace International is protesting the use of hazardous chemicals at Milan Fashion Week

Publically naming and shaming companies is an effective method, Terras said. "We named the companies because they are responsible for the supply chain. We believe that every company should be fully accountable for what they are doing," he said. "Before we named the companies, people were not aware of who is responsible. But knowing who's responsible is the key to the solution."

The Greenpeace activist added that non-polluting alternatives are available on the market. He said increasing public awareness is creating a movement for change within the fashion industry. "Brands like Valentino and Burberry have already taken credible steps towards clean production and have made the detox commitment."

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