Is Seventh Generation Actually Cruelty-Free?


Seventh Generation's push for more animal testing will not protect human health or the environment from harmful chemicals.

"We don't believe any animal should be harmed in the process of making the products you use to create a clean and healthy home," reads the website of Seventh Generation Inc. The Vermont-based corporation prides itself on selling cruelty-free, eco-friendly household products-appealing to both animal lovers and environmentalists. For a long time, that's why I relied on the green and white labels to tackle everything from high chair-post-toddler to toddler-post-high chair. No longer-I recently discovered that in spite of its cruelty-free history, the company has become one of the most outspoken advocates for more animal testing for chemicals. But this approach fails to protect people and the environment.

Bear with me for a little policy talk. Seventh Generation is lobbying for specific changes to the 1976 federal law intended to defend consumers from toxic industrial chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). These reforms would require tens of millions of animals to be used in lethal experiments. The company has been pioneering initiatives to drive these policies forward through various grassroots campaigns and coalitions, including the Million Baby Crawl and the Toxin Freedom Fighters Campaign.

What exactly is it pushing for? Other regulations require that drugs and pesticides undergo specific safety tests-many of which include animals-before they can enter the market. Seventh Generation and environmental groups want TSCA to extend a similar provision to industrial chemicals as well. This would involve the creation of a list consisting almost exclusively of animal experiments that existing and new chemicals would be subject to before they can be sold.

This demand might seem reasonable on the surface. Industrial chemicals can and often do wind up in our food, water, and bodies. Gathering information about their safety through pre-market tests isn't an inherently bad idea.

But like the law itself, old testing methods that rely on animals are failing to defend people and the environment from potential toxins. Chemical testing is one of the few-if not the only-scientific field in which experiments are virtually the same as they were half a century ago. It's as if we evaluated the safety of today's cars, trains, or other technologies using tests from the 1960s.

The thinking behind using animals to study human reactions is just as flawed: We assess chemicals as if humans were 70-kilogram rats-as if simply scaling up results from animal tests could help us predict a chemical's effects on humans. But we ingest, metabolize, and react to chemicals differently than animals in labs do. One of the standard animal experiments used to evaluate potential skin irritation, for instance, fails to predict effects on humans about half the time.

Animal tests are also time consuming and expensive; a single test on just one chemical can take three years to complete and cost millions of dollars. Because they can be difficult to interpret, animal tests often lead to even more animal tests rather than the implementation of regulations that protect the public and the environment. And there's the obvious cruelty: Animals used in chemical experiments are never given any pain relief, even though scientific evidence clearly shows us that they suffer.

The lack of translation from animal to human stems from several of these testing methods' intrinsic flaws. One is that animal experiments only involve very high doses of one chemical at a time, whereas humans are often exposed to low doses of hundreds of different chemicals and products simultaneously. Second, animal tests don't account for human diversity. Our life stage, diet, health status, and genetic makeup all play a part in how we might respond to chemical exposure, and animal tests don't reflect this diversity.

Animal experiments simply can't model human reactions, but new and existing alternatives can. Advanced machines evaluate thousands of chemicals at once-more in a single day than have been tested in the past 20 years using animals. In vitro methods based on human cells and tissues have proven to be more effective and often more affordable than using animals.

If animal tests are inaccurate, time consuming, expensive, and cruel why do Seventh Generation and environmental groups support them? One reason is that regulators are comfortable with animal studies because they have been in use for decades. Advocates for animal testing claim this streamlines the government's process of evaluating new chemicals. Even if true, this argument thwarts scientific progress toward the use of alternatives which better predict a chemical's effects on humans.

But the company's pro-animal testing campaigns are likely nothing more than a bad case of corporate hypocrisy. In trying to attract eco-conscious consumers, Seventh Generation is promoting policies environmental organizations have always pushed for: more testing. But we can't just get more information; we need the right information. By asking for more animal testing, Seventh Generation is helping to keep this broken paradigm-which ultimately fails to protect people and the environment-in place. And in jumping on this eco-bandwagon, it can't expect to preserve the loyalty of its customers who also want cruelty-free products.

Tell Seventh Generation it can't have its cruelty-free cake and eat it too. Please let the company know that you are disappointed by its efforts and will refuse to purchase its products until it actively promotes nonanimal testing methods.

Kristie Sullivan, M.P.H. is a toxicologist and Director of Regulatory Testing Issues at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Follow her @KristiePCRM.