When my doctor told me I’d be delivering my baby at 32 weeks, I looked at her like she was crazy. Nothing was ready. Not the crib, not his room, and certainly not me. At the same time, I was also a little relieved. My pregnancy had been miserable, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. My son weighed 3 pounds, 10 ounces at birth and was immediately whisked off to the neonatal intensive care unit. I was still recovering from pre-eclampsia and a C-section, and could barely get myself down the hall to see him. There were so many things to remember about his care that I felt overwhelmed. He came home after about a week but then had to be readmitted a few days later because he couldn’t regulate his body temperature. I felt helpless and afraid. In those early days, he spent a lot of time sleeping, and that gave me plenty of time to search the Internet for parenting advice.
The strange thing about parenting in the social media age is that it’s both overwhelming and empowering. You can always find plenty of answers to your 2 a.m. feeding questions -- but which answer is right? Like everyone else addicted to social media, parents gravitate toward like-minded people for parenting advice, articles, clever memes and book recommendations. But parenting-by-Internet isn’t just about finding information. Fretful new parents eventually become parent curators, sharing their own collection of resources. Part of what drives the cycle of searching and curating is the desire to figure out who you are as a parent and who you want to be. What’s your personal parenting brand? Attachment parenting? Free-range? Helicopter? Tiger mom? Snowplow? Peaceful parenting? The options are as endless as the Internet.
Once I started to recover from pre-eclampsia and my son grew strong enough to come home again, I desperately wanted to put my miserable hi-tech pregnancy and birth behind me and parent in an intuitive and natural way. I wanted it to feel easy. In those early days, my personal parenting brand was a combination of natural and attachment parenting with a dash of “whatever works.” I practiced co-sleeping and wore him most of the day in a sling. I spent scads of money on the right lactation consultant so I could breastfeed successfully. I bought expensive natural baby-care products and organic baby food. I felt strong and empowered, and no small part of that was fueled by the mass of information I was getting from the parenting information bubble in which I’d found myself. I frequented the Mothering.com message boards and Kellymom.com for breastfeeding. I read the Dr. Sears "Baby Book" and Naomi Wolf’s takedown of the hi-tech birth industry, "Misconceptions." And the cherry on top of the placenta smoothie was that I was living in San Francisco at the time, so I was surrounded by plenty of like-minded parents in real time too.
Within the natural parenting universe, anti-corporate sentiment is common. Parents consciously reject “big food” conglomerates, formula companies and anything emblazoned with licensed characters. But there are corporations in the natural parenting universe too, with carefully composed brands backed by strategy and money. “Dr. Sears” is one of the most recognizable names in the baby products industry. Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company is known for its line of nontoxic natural baby products. Even health and wellness gurus the Food Babe and Gwyneth Paltrow (aka GOOP) have crafted strong personal brands that resonate with their followers, many of whom are moms. But what is the value behind the brand? What do these companies and personalities stand for?
Despite its relatively unassuming name, one of the most recognizable and highly trusted brands for many parents is the Environmental Working Group, or EWG. I know the EWG well. I frequently relied on their first “Dirty Dozen” list to tell me when I should buy organic and avoid those dangerous pesticides dripping from my “dirty” conventional produce. Like so many other parents, I just assumed the EWG’s recommendations were incontrovertible. Blogger Shayna Murray relied on the EWG’s dirty dozen and sunscreen guides when she first became a mom too. “My daughter has both eczema and mild asthma so I was always looking at ways I could keep her conditions under control while minimizing the use of medication. Anything that I could do that seemed "natural" just made sense to me.”
It was only fairly recently that I learned that even though the EWG has secured the trust of many parents, some of their warnings and recommendations don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. So how did they become such a trusted name?
“Environmental Working Group” sounds so much drier than Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. Their no-frills, academic-sounding name has always made the EWG appear legitimate, apolitical and above the fray. The name says this is the place for information. We’re trustworthy. We’re doing the work. Formed in 1983, the Environmental Working Group became a household name by publishing buying guides aimed at warning consumers about the toxins and chemicals all around them. Buying the wrong countertop spray could put your health at risk, or so the EWG’s concerns about these products seemed to suggest to nervous, environmentally conscious parents. EWG’s consumer guides are so commonly cited by mainstream media outlets that many parents accept their recommendations without question. For years I was one of them. I remember pondering the produce options at Whole Foods because every decision at the grocery store felt important, like I was protecting my child from dangerous chemicals. Elizabeth Williams, a mom I spoke with, says she also used to follow EWG’s advice, even though “these lists also caused me quite a bit of anxiety, because my family's budget simply couldn't afford organic produce or the brands of recommended sunscreen.” Parents like myself often interpret these warnings as cause for fear and alarm, even when scientific evidence to support the EWG’s concerns or calls for labeling is lacking.
When experts review the EWG’s consumer guides, the findings often come up short. In their Dirty Dozen list, the EWG publicizes what they call “dirty” pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables without mentioning that what they describe as “dirty” pesticide residue levels are actually safe because they're well below "tolerance" levels set by the EPA. In their most recent sunscreen guide, the EWG warns consumers to avoid sunscreens containing oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, but the U.S. Skin Cancer Foundation and many toxicologists disagree. The EWG recommends that consumers avoid GMOs despite the scientific consensus on their safety. Their warnings about formaldehyde in baby products got Johnson & Johnson to remove a preservative from their baby shampoo formulation, even though the amount of formaldehyde was miniscule and not associated with any elevated cancer risk.
Dr. Alison Bernstein, the mom and scientist behind the popular Facebook page Mommy PhD, has been critical of the EWG’s methods: “Instead of providing knowledge and education to consumers, the EWG has built a brand around small bits of information designed to induce fear. Their hazard scores in the Skin Deep database exaggerate risks and do not consider exposure, which they admit in their methodology.”
I understand why parents would assume products made with natural ingredients are safer than those made or grown with synthetic chemicals. We associate nature with good health and what’s best for us, not cancer or poisonous plants. But whether something is natural or synthetic doesn’t have anything to do with its toxicity. Arsenic is completely natural, and completely deadly. My daughter’s eczema causes her skin to become raw and red if she uses soap or cream containing fragrance, and it doesn’t matter if it’s Burt’s Bees or Irish Spring. Still, it’s not surprising that parents feel confused and frightened about which companies they can trust. We’re bombarded with information about risk without any means for placing that risk in context. Dr. Alison Bernstein (introduced above) adds, “I agree with the overall goals of EWG for safe cosmetics and consumer products and agree with some of their proposals regarding reforming the regulatory processes governing ingredients used in cosmetics and consumer products. However, such decisions must be based in sound science.”
Parents become lured in by the EWG because the organization's extensive databases of scary-sounding chemicals have the veneer of science and seem positioned to trigger parental anxiety. The EWG often publicizes its findings with some reference to rising rates of conditions like autism, food allergies and obesity, conditions that seem frightening because they don’t have a simple explanation. A press release about organic produce sales and the EWG’s guide to pesticides includes a warning about the national obesity epidemic, for example. Or they raise dire-sounding concerns without bothering to offer any further explanation. In a press release for the Dirty Dozen, EWG Senior Analyst Sonya Lunder says, “Pesticides are toxic. They are designed to kill things and most are not good for you. The question is, how bad are they?” Shouldn’t a “senior analyst” be able to offer some sort of answer to that question?
President and co-founder Peter Cook attributes the EWG’s success to their ability to make “the environment something that’s personal.” The EWG name has become so valuable and recognizable that it’s now the centerpiece of a new venture the Group calls EWG Verified. Recently, the EWG filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to register the trademark EWG Verified with the tagline For Your Health. Their empire-building plans are extensive -- the application lists diapers, baby bottles, baby food, bed linens, HVAC units, mattresses, coffee, juices, spa services and more. The EWG plans to license the trademark -- that is, charge an annual fee in exchange for use of the brand on its packaging -- to select natural and organic companies in order to grow both their brand and their income stream. According to the EWG Verified page, the revenue will go to support the EWG Verified program and to ensure "that EWG can continue its critical research and distribute it to consumers and beyond." Given the trust (albeit misplaced) that the EWG name enjoys, the possibilities are huge. EWG earns money from its licensees (even the potential ones -- the application fee is $500) as well as from sales of licensed products through affiliate links on its website. So, the EWG could give select products a high rating, sell its name to those highly rated products, and then collect the revenues and garner increased brand recognition.
This isn’t an entirely new strategy for the EWG. They’ve long had financial ties to the products and industries they evaluate. Mark Hyman sits on their board and uses the EWG sunscreen guide to recommend Vitamin D supplements that he sells through his online store. Board member Christine Gardner is a brand ambassador for Beautycounter, also one of EWG's corporate partners and prospective licensee in the EWG Verified program. The EWG also gives its best score to and sells sunscreens from the Honest Company. That company was founded in part by the former CEO of Healthy Child Healthy World, an organization that has now been subsumed by the EWG. The EWG’s “Sun Safety Coalition” — a partnership between EWG and the companies it recommends — sells its partner companies’ sunscreens on the EWG site and in retail stores that participate in their program. And there are other companies that the EWG recommends that also support EWG financially. For example, the EWG gives most of Juice Beauty’s skincare products a 1 rating, the lowest possible hazard score, and they’re also an EWG corporate partner. EWG Verified is just a much more brazen version of their strategy. Now more than ever, their plans for profit are tied to the very companies they’re supposed to be independently reviewing.
The EWG doesn’t just want more money. It also wants to increase its influence and power, especially with parents. To make that happen, the EWG needs an army. According to its current strategic plan, EWG wants to “cultivate a network of bloggers to engage women, especially moms, and expand the reach of EWG content.” One of the most popular and vehemently anti-science health and wellness bloggers, the Food Babe, was recently photographed with Cook at the EWG holiday party. The EWG also plans to recruit 50 volunteers to personally lobby for the EWG’s legislative agenda in every state. Maybe the EWG can recruit the #foodbabearmy.
The EWG is as revenue-minded and strategic as any for-profit corporation, which isn’t against the law so long as revenues are spent consistently with their mission. But what is the EWG’s mission? What is the value behind the brand and what do they really stand for? The EWG says its goal is to “empower people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment.” But stoking fears -- particularly in vulnerable parents -- isn’t empowering. Spreading panic and paranoia isn’t empowering.
Do you know what's in your tap water? What about your shampoo? What’s lurking in the cleaners underneath your sink? What pesticides are on your food? How about the farms, fracking wells and factories in your local area? Do you know what safeguards they use to protect your water, soil, air and your kids? Which large agribusinesses get your tax dollars and why? What are GMOs? What do they do to our land and water?
The EWG doesn’t seem to want parents to find the actual answers to those questions, which are often complex and require scientific research to untangle. If parents knew the facts, the EWG couldn’t prey on our fears. And whether one’s brand involves luxury or healthy living — fear sells.